The fighting between the government and rebels in Syria continues to be 'a grinding war of attrition' with no military or political end in sight, said the US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The fighting between the government and rebels in Syria continues to be “a grinding war of attrition” with no military or political end in sight, a top American diplomat said today.
“Neither the regime nor the opposition can throw a knockout punch,” Robert Ford, US ambassador to Syria, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The ruling regime of Bashir al Assad is increasingly relying on foreign forces, such as Hezbollah from Lebanon, Iranian Qods troops and Iraqi Shia militias to fight on behalf of the government since regime forces have melted away and new recruits are increasingly difficult to find.
“More and more, the regime is dependent on foreign manpower” as it struggles to hold its armed forces together and keep them supplied, he added.
The Assad regime is also being supplied by Russia, which has recently increased the amount of conventional arms it is providing to the regime.
“The Russian deliveries have become more significant, more significant than from Iran,” which had been Assad’s biggest sponsor up to now, Ford warned.
Earlier in the day, the Joint Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – United Nations Mission confirmed that Syria had completed the destruction of equipment used for chemical weapons production, and that OPCW teams have inspected 21 of the 23 sites declared by Syria, and 39 of the 41 facilities located at those sites. The last two sites are still unreachable due to security concerns.
Still, Thomas Countryman, the US State Department’s assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation, told the panel that Syria only just delivered a 700-page report to Washington on Monday outlining its chemical weapons and production facilities, and that the Obama administration is working though it.
The opposition forces continue to be a hodgepodge of loosely aligned secular and Islamist forces, some of which have been fighting one another for influence and power. US intelligence has found that the two main al-Qaida groups — the mostly indigenous Jabhat al-Nusra and the newer, mostly Iraqi and foreign Islamic State for Iraq and the Levant — have been fighting one another in northern Syria, Ford said.
In some cases, secular opposition groups have formed temporary, ad hoc alliances with elements of al Nusra to battle the foreign fighters as well.
The United States has delivered about $250 million worth of non-lethal aid to secular groups so far, including several trucks on Oct. 31st that can be used for logistics and to move fighters around.
But several senators scoffed at the Obama administration’s efforts in Syria.
Sen. Bob Coker, R-Tenn., said the Obama administration has “no real strategy relative to the opposition ... let’s face it guys, what really happened when the Russian offer came forward was it was less about seizing an opportunity and more about our country not having to stomach” developing a strategy for Syria.
“We don’t see a way for this to be solved militarily,” Ford shot back. “We have to build a political set of agreements between [Syrian] communities” or else the fighting will grind on with no end.
“Our help has been an embarrassment,” Coker told the witnesses. “I could not be more embarrassed by the way we have let down [the secular opposition.] I hope at some point this administration will sit down and develop a strategy not only for Syria but for the region”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., piled on, calling the White House’s insistence that the fighting in Syria is a civil war “a gross distortion of the facts, which makes many of us question your fundamental strategy,” both in the country and in the region in general.
Ford explained that supplying the secular resistance with aid has been complicated by the fact that al-Qaida groups had captured key border points, making resupply almost impossible until secular fighters recaptured the border crossings.
He also said that the Islamist groups have increasingly become self-sufficient, having captured oil wells in the north, as well as by running extortion and smuggling schemes in order to finance their operations.