U.S. Syria strategy aims to salvage reputation

Shashank Joshi writes: This week, new US Secretary of State John Kerry promised $60m (£40m) to the Syrian National Coalition, the political umbrella group for opponents of President Bashar al-Assad’s beleaguered regime. But there is a certain irony to the fact that, while the cash was pledged to “non-lethal” assistance, US policy is increasingly being forced to accommodate itself to the armed, very much lethal side of Syria’s rebellion.

Last summer, after former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan gave up on his peace plan for Syria, things looked hopeless. President Barack Obama’s top national security officials all fell in line behind a plan to arm selected Syrian rebels.

But, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal, the president vetoed the proposal: He was concerned at whether the weapons would make their way to extremists, make much difference, or provoke Russia into a response.

Although the US had given its support earlier in the year to a Saudi Arabia, Qatari and Turkish effort to funnel arms to Syria, it changed its mind after seeing that jihadists were getting many of the weapons. The flow thinned out.

But fast forward to the beginning of this year, and the picture looks different. Syria-watchers, like the bloggers Eliot Higgins and James Miller, began noticing an influx of arms from the former Yugoslavia to southern Syria – most previous arms having come in from the north, via Turkey.

Piecing together various news reports, it seems that Croatian arms are being purchased by Saudi money, collected by Jordanian aircraft, and smuggled to groups who are almost certainly being vetted by the United States.

Why the shift in policy? First, the timing would indicate that the White House was waiting for last year’s presidential elections to conclude.

Second, the rebels’ performance in the north of Syria, strong as it has been over the last six months, wasn’t having a decisive effect.

The aim of going through Jordan is to open up a new front in the south, and put more pressure on Damascus itself. [Continue reading…]

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