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NATO Allies Hold Off on Weapons, Military Support for Syrian Rebels

Jan. 11, 2013 - 06:08AM   |  
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The fatalities in Syria keep stacking up, with more than 60,000 dead, according to a recent U.N. report, but those who support the rebels aren’t inclined to provide the type of aid that might allow them to win.

Despite continued insistence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go, the U.S. and its NATO allies are holding firm that providing weapons or direct military support is off the table. And with the viability of diplomatic success highly uncertain, the death toll is likely to keep rising.

“We are providing nonlethal assistance,” Victoria Nuland, U.S. State Department spokeswoman, said during a recent press briefing. “We are continuing to look now in conjunction with the Syrian Opposition Council at what more kinds of nonlethal support we can provide.”

The Turkish ambassador to the U.S. echoed Nuland’s position during a December roundtable with reporters, voicing the country’s continued support for the rebels, while saying Turkey will neither intervene directly nor provide weapons.

But Ambassador Namik Tan was candid in his assessment of the Syrian opposition’s odds of winning without more direct support.

“[Do] they have enough military means in their hands?” Tan said. “No, they don’t.”

Tan, who described a number of efforts undertaken by the Turkish government to help the flood of refugees now camped in Turkey, said Syria’s future lies with success of the opposition.

“I don’t see any other alternative than the opposition winning this conflict,” he said.

Nuland declined to answer whether the State Department agreed with the assessment that further support, most likely military support, is required. “I’m not going to get into our internal assessments other than to say what we’ve been saying for a couple of weeks here, which is that we do see the regime under significant pressure, we do see the opposition making gains on the ground, and particularly in the context of this extremely difficult and fierce fighting going on in both Aleppo and Damascus now.”

The probability of opposition success without further military aid depends on the time frame, said Guy Ben-Ari, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I think the answer depends on how you define ‘success’ and how quickly you want to achieve it,” Ben-Ari said. “If ‘success’ means overthrowing Assad and you want to achieve it in a week, then the answer is no, the rebels cannot do it without additional support. If success means getting the Assad regime to discuss a cease-fire and make certain concessions to the rebels and you want to achieve it within a year, then the answer is yes, they probably can.”

Diplomatic efforts have been held up by resistance from the Russian government, which is a major arms supplier for the Assad regime and has publicly resisted calls for international intervention. But news broke right before the new year that international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi had presented a cease-fire plan to Assad that is being discussed between the Syrian and Russian governments. Whether a deal can be reached, and what the exact terms would be, is unclear.

Deciphering the status of the conflict is difficult, given the problems gathering information on the ground and the bombing campaigns by Syrian government forces, which have occasionally driven opposition forces into hiding. However, opposition groups have made progress, aided by weapons that have made their way into the country with no nation taking credit for the support.

“The rebels have gained quite a bit of military momentum in recent weeks, which seems largely attributable to the weapons and training that other countries are providing, especially anti-aircraft capabilities,” said Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

U.S. defense hawks have been calling to increase the flow of weapons into rebel hands for months, but the process has been complicated by the involvement of radical groups in the uprising. Quietly, sources said they believe the U.S. is selectively moving weapons into the country.

But the odds of the rebels winning a military campaign swiftly without a much larger helping hand seem slim, and few other options remain.

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