The Cable

Syrian opposition rallies behind Menendez bill to arm rebels

Syrian rebels have found a friend in New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. The chairman of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee introduced a bill Monday to provide weapons to certain rebel groups -- and though it falls short of many rebel requests, the Syrian opposition's de facto lobbying arm in Washington sees it as the best ticket in town to turn the tide against Bashar al-Assad's regime.

"We are quite happy with most aspects of the legislation," Dan Layman, spokesman for the Syrian Support Group (SSG), told The Cable. The SSG is the only organization licensed by the U.S. government to provide financial and non-lethal support to rebel fighters, and has unusually extensive contacts with military commanders in the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

After 24 hours of pouring over the Menendez bill's language, Layman gave The Cable the group's first assessment: in short, not bad.

"It is a more focused step in the right direction, and due to its less aggressive nature.... I think it has more of a chance of going through," Layman said.

The bill includes $250 million to the opposition for "basic services over parts of the country," additional sanctions on arms and oil sales to the government in Damascus, and the authority to provide "arms, military training and non-lethal supplies" to vetted elements of Syria's armed opposition -- a measure the Obama administration has yet to take for fear of putting arms in the hands of Islamic extremists. (In recent months, the CIA has attempted to vet Syrian rebels receiving support from Western and Arab governments.) 

What it does not do is provide rebels man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), call for the immediate establishment of a no-fly zone in Syria, or offer specifics on military training and chemical weapons securement.

"Training and non-lethal supplies are a must, and we would like to see more specific descriptions of the training that is being proposed," Layman said. "At the very least, the bill's intention to exclude MANPADS should be substantiated by an intention to provide other forms of anti-aircraft artillery, which the rebels have been using somewhat successfully against both MiGs and helicopters so far." As for the bill's call for increased sanctions, Layman said Congress should be more focused on direct aid to the rebels. "We need to put our weight behind those particular efforts first." 

The SSG's critique is not at all surprising to Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a critic of the Obama administration's reluctance to intervene in Syria.

"They want immediate relief, and after 70,000 killed, I can't blame them," he told The Cable. "If you want to pressure the president into acting, it's a pretty good bill," said Tabler, noting the indirect effect that legislative support for the rebels can have from members of the president's own party. "The last time the Hill moved on Syria was sanctions on Syrian oil in the summer of 2011. That pressured the president to move, and this could too."

According to an increasing number of senators, it's just a matter of time before the administration gives in. "My guess is we will give them to them," Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy said on Meet the Press over the weekend, referring to weapons to rebels. "I do think we'll be arming the opposition shortly," Republican Senator Bob Corker told CBS News, a day after a golf outing with the president.

For now, the administration is emphasizing the action it has already taken in Syria and downplaying pressure from the president's own party.

"We are not going to comment on proposed legislation," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told The Cable. "As the President has said, we continue to explore every available, practical, and responsible means to end the suffering of the Syrian people and accelerate a political transition."

Though Hayden refused to draw out the potential hazards of Menendez's bill, the plain concern is the growing intelligence indicating that the country's rebel movement is increasingly being taken over by jihadist groups, with the powerful Al-Nusra Front's recent alliance with al Qaeda being a primary example. There are also concerns that even if Washington gives the rebels more guns and rocket launchers, they won't be able to topple Assad's regime.

Menendez has yet to announce a date for voting on the bill.


The Cable

Kerry retreats from U.S. stance that Assad must go

Even as Washington debates whether suspected chemical weapons use in Syria should provoke direct intervention, Secretary of State John Kerry stepped back from the Obama administration's longstanding position that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad needs to leave power.

"[I]t's impossible for me as an individual to understand how Syria could possibly be governed in the future by the man who has committed the things that we know have taken place," Kerry said at a press conference yesterday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, where the two officials laid out a plan for an international conference to reach a negotiated settlement to the Syrian conflict. "But ... I'm not going to decide that tonight, and I'm not going to decide that in the end."

Kerry's remarks came on the same day that President Barack Obama repeated his administration's stance that Assad must leave power. In a White House statement, Obama called on the Assad regime to end its "violent war" and "step aside to allow a political transition in Syria." Obama first called on Assad to resign in August 2011, saying that it should be done "[f]or the sake of the Syrian people."

The U.S. insistence on Assad's exit has long been a sticking point in its attempts to find common ground with Russia on the Syrian issue. The two sides now seem to be trying to bridge this gap: Lavrov said that he was "not interested in the fate of certain persons" when it comes time to determine who sits in a transitional government.

Kerry framed his refusal to say that Assad should step down as in line with the June 2011 Geneva communiqué, which was supposed to provide a roadmap for a negotiated settlement in Syria. The communiqué, which was agreed to by both Russia and the United States, ducked the issue of Assad's future by saying that each side -- the Syrian opposition and the regime -- would be able to veto candidates for an interim government who they found unacceptable. Presumably, the opposition would veto Assad while the regime would veto radical Islamist groups like the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra.

Washington and Moscow seem prepared to move quickly to get both sides to the negotiating table. Kerry said that Russia would try to arrange a conference as early as this month.

A failure to reach a compromise, Kerry argued, would mean that the bloodshed in Syria would only worsen. "The alternative is that Syria heads closer to the abyss, if not over the abyss, and into chaos," he said. "The alternative is that the humanitarian crisis will grow. The alternative is that there may be the break-up of Syria or ethnic attacks, ethnic cleansing."

Update: A State Department official, speaking on background to FP, clarified the U.S. position on Syria after this post was published. The official said that the U.S. position that Assad "has lost all legitimacy and must step aside" was unchanged, and that the United States also believes that Syrians must negotiate the makeup of a transitional government themselves.