A very complicated Syria just became more complex given the events of the past week. You see nations scrambling as they work for solutions. Everyone knows that a Syrian collapse could create a vacuum for all kinds of trouble to other countries in the region and bigger headaches for everyone else.
Syria’s two-year war’s death toll staggers toward 80,000—with increasing casualties among innocent and unarmed civilians. Assad’s forces have stepped up their indiscriminate bombing of the civilian centers where armed rebels have gained footholds. Syrian rebel forces, outnumbered 8-1 and out-gunned to infinity, are essentially taking on Assad’s full military force with light weapons.
In an ironic twist, Russia, and the US—clearly ideologically on separate sides of the conflict—are working together to broker talks between Assad’s Syrian regime and the rebel fighters. The Syrian announcement that they are willing to talk shows how complex the civil war, because for all the posturing and appearances there continues an unabated war. And, pleasantries aside, both sides have shown a brutal determination to conquer or die. It is not difficult to imagine a scenario wherein things get a whole lot darker in a very short time.
The US Searches for Answers
The pressure on the Obama administration is ramping up; the Obama Administration’s Syrian policies have been largely inert for the last two years. In a recent bipartisan agreement, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a bill that would provide a more capable weapons arsenal to rebels in Syria. They also agreed to provide military training to vetted rebel groups, sanctions against anyone who sells oil or transfers arms to Assad’s Syrian regime, and a requirement for the Administration to work more closely with the senate on Syrian policy. It seems the Senate is moving in one direction and the White House in a different direction. Where will they find common ground? Will they?
Arizona Senator John McCain isn’t sitting around any longer. McCain, who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently made a surprise visit to Syria to meet with leaders of Syria’s opposition forces. McCain has been a vocal critic of Obama administration policy in Syria. He has not been an advocate of U.S. ground troops in Syria, but he supports aggressive military steps against the Assad regime. Earlier this month, McCain wrote an op/ed for Time Magazine in which he said inaction in Syria will further destabilize the Middle East and threaten U.S. interests abroad.
According to The Daily Beast, which first reported McCain’s Syrian visit, Gen. Salem Idris, chief of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, accompanied McCain across the Turkey-Syria border. McCain met with Free Syrian Army leaders and received requests for increased U.S. support, including heavy weapons, a no-fly zone, and airstrikes on Syrian government and Hezbollah forces. Some in Washington content that such dramatic involvement on the part of the US would effectively be a declaration of war on Syria.
A State Department official said the department was aware of McCain crossing into Syrian territory Monday but referred further questions to McCain’s office. McCain spokeswoman Rachel Dean confirmed the Monday trip but declined further comment.
The European Union Takes Action
In Brussels, the European Union just announced plans to lift the arms embargo on the Syrian opposition after June 1, while maintaining all other sanctions against President Bashar Assad’s regime, according to British Foreign Secretary William Hague. England and France lead the effort to supply the Syrian rebels, but the European Union action does not yet translate to arms shipments being made.
Further complicating the conflict is Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah’s support of Assad, which was formally announced Saturday. The news stoked the fears of those already worried that the Syrian crisis could spill into Lebanon. Hezbollah would love to get its hands on bigger and more technological weapons systems that are sure to be flowing into the region.
Hezbollah and Russian Support for Syria
On one hand Russia says it is working to broker talks between the warring factions while on the other it continues to pump military aid to Syria. Russia dramatically escalated the war in the entire region by announcing it will deliver S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to the Syrian government. Sergei Ryabkov, Russian deputy foreign minister, said the S-300 missiles are a “stabilizing factor” that could dissuade “some hotheads” from joining the conflict. He asserted that the weapons were not for use against the rebels, presumably because the rebels do not have aircraft. It seems to be a stern Russian warning to other nations thinking about taking a larger role in the region.
Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of intelligence, condemned Russia’s decision to ship the anti-aircraft missiles to the Syrian government. Steinitz said it was wrong to describe the anti-aircraft S-300s as weapons of defense. The missiles’ range is purportedly 300km, meaning they could be used to target civilian or military aircraft over Tel Aviv. He said these weapons could also end up in the hands up of Hezbollah or Iran, thereby bypassing the arms embargo on Iran.
It makes you wonder what Israel will do about the Russian rockets, should they arrive in Syria, especially given their strike-first defense policy that has already been linked to recent massive strikes in Damascus to destroy rockets it says were planned to be shipped to Lebanon and Hezbollah.
The Israeli defense minister Moshe Yaalon has been quoted as saying the S-300 missile system had not yet left Russia. “I hope they will not leave, and if, God forbid, they reach Syria, we will know what to do,” he said.