Reaction cool to US plan to arm Syrian rebels

AP , Saturday 15 Jun 2013

US to use Syrian regime's alleged use of chemical weapons as pressure point to pull Al-Assad into negotiations while arming rebels; Obama to make G8 announcement

The Obama administration hopes its decision to provide military aid to Syrian rebels will prompt other nations to increase their assistance, now that the US has cited evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against the Syrian people. But international reaction to the move has ranged from flat-out disbelief of US intelligence assessments to calls for negotiations before more weapons pour into the country's vicious civil war.

The US administration says it has "high confidence" that President Bashar Al-Assad's forces have killed up to 150 people with sarin gas. Although that's a tiny percentage of the approximately 93,000 killed in the civil war so far, the use of chemical weapons crosses President Barack Obama's "red line" for escalating US involvement in the conflict and prompted the decision to send arms and ammunition, not just humanitarian aid and defensive non-lethal help like armored vests and night goggles.

The administration's plan heading into the G8 meeting of industrialised nations beginning Monday is to use the chemical weapons announcement and Obama's decision on arms to persuade Russia, Syria's closest ally, to increase pressure on Al-Assad to send a credible negotiating team to Geneva for talks with the opposition.

In addition, Obama is expected to use the G8 meeting and discussions on the sidelines to further coordinate with the British, French and potentially others an increase of assistance — lethal, non-lethal and humanitarian — to the rebels, the political opposition and refugees.

In a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said Friday the United States has determined that sarin was used in a 19 March attack on the Aleppo suburb of Khan Al-Assal and in a 13 April attack on the neighbourhood of Shaykh Maqsud. She said unspecified chemicals, possibly including chemical warfare agents, were used 14 May in an attack on Qasr Abu Samrah and in a 23 May attack on Adra.

Ban, however, voiced opposition to the US decision to send arms to the Syrian rebels. The UN chief said no one can be certain chemical weapons were used without an on-the-ground investigation. Increasing the flow of arms to either side "would not be helpful," he said.

US officials have not disclosed details about the weapons they intend to send to Syria or when and how they will be delivered. According to officials, the US is most likely to provide the rebel fighters with small arms, ammunition, assault rifles and a variety of anti-tank weaponry such as shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades and other missiles.

As of Friday, however, no final decisions had been made on the details or when the arms would reach the rebels, according to officials who insisted on anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss internal administration discussions with reporters.

Obama has consistently said he will not put American troops in Syria, making it less likely the US will provide sophisticated arms or anti-aircraft weapons that would require large-scale training. Administration officials are also worried about high-powered weapons ending up in the hands of terrorist groups. Hizbullah fighters are among those backing Al-Assad's armed forces, and Al-Qaeda-linked extremists back the rebellion.

The lethal aid will largely be coordinated by the CIA, but that effort will also be buttressed by an increased US military presence in Jordan.

US officials say Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is about to approve orders that would leave roughly a dozen F-16 fighter jets and a Patriot missile battery in Jordan after ongoing military exercises there end later next week. That would result in several hundred more US troops staying in Jordan to support the fighters and missiles, in addition to the approximately 250 that have been there for some time.

The additional military troops and equipment are designed to increase stability in the region and are not part of the effort to train Syrian rebels or take part in any offensive operations in Syria, the US officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to the press on the detail.

The biggest hurdle for the US strategy remains Russia, a major weapons supplier to Al-Assad.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said Friday that Moscow doesn't believe US findings on chemical weapons.

"I wouldn't like to draw parallels with the famous dossier of Secretary of State Colin Powell, but the facts, the information presented by the US, didn't look convincing," he said.

The comment indeed drew a parallel with Powell's speech to the UN asserting pre-war Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, a claim that proved false.

Ushakov also suggested that sending weapons to the opposition would diminish Moscow's interest in negotiations in Geneva.

"If the Americans make and fulfill a decision to provide a greater assistance to the rebels, to the opposition, it's not going to make the preparations for an international conference on Syria any easier," he said.

Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, acknowledged the differences that remain between the US and Russia on the Syrian crisis. Despite their disagreement over chemical weapon use, the US will continue to talk to the Russians about ways to achieve a political settlement in Syria, considered the best option by all.

"We have no illusions that that's going to be easy," Rhodes said, adding that Obama and Putin would meet next week.

Getting Western allies to increase support for the rebels won't necessarily be easy, either.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he there is credible evidence of "multiple attacks" using chemical weapons by Al-Assad's fighters, but indicated that Al-Qaeda-linked elements in the opposition movement had also attempted to acquire chemical weapons for probable use in Syria.

Still, he restated the UK government's position that no decision had been taken to arm moderate rebels opposed to Al-Assad.

The Obama administration says it has no evidence the opposition has used chemical weapons.

French President Francois Hollande told reporters Friday that the use of chemical weapons by Al-Assad "confirms that we must exercise pressure on the regime." But French Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot would not say whether the US claim of chemical weapons use adds momentum to arming rebels.

The US has so far provided $250 million in non-lethal military and political aid to the Syrian opposition. The Obama administration has already told Congress that $127 million of this aid is in the pipeline. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday the administration now has notified Congress that the remaining $123 million in assistance, including body armor and other equipment such as night-vision goggles, is beginning to move to the Syrian rebels.

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