Secretary of State John Kerry's goal of bringing the Syrian rebels and the Assad regime to the negotiating table next month has hit a major snag. In a letter obtained by The Cable, Gen. Salim Idris, the commander of the rebels' Supreme Military Council, says that the United States must establish "strategic military balance" between the rebels and Assad as a precondition to any peace talks.
The letter does not detail specifics, but Dan Layman, media relations director at the Syrian Support Group, a licensed U.S. advocacy group with extensive contacts to the Free Syrian Army, said the demand requires anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry such as 90 mm rockets, recoilless rifles, and ideally man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS).
"He's looking for game-changing weapons," said Layman. "I think he knows he's not going to get MANPADS, but weaponry that can take on regime armor in addition to small arms is a must."
The Obama administration does not currently support shipping U.S.-purchased weapons to rebels, however, and there's no sign this will happen before next month's U.S.-Russian proposed peace talks in Geneva. (Though the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted yesterday to arm some Syrian rebel groups, there's no indication when the bill will move to the Senate floor.) In recent days, U.S. officials have called the proposed Geneva conference "the most serious effort in the last two years to get the Syrian government to sit down and negotiate with the Syrian opposition."
In the letter, Idris says the Free Syrian Army will only be willing to negotiate if the U.S. provides weapons first. "For the negotiations to be of any substance, we must reach a strategic military balance, without which the regime will feel empowered to dictate ... while fully sustained logistically and militarily by Russia and Iran," reads the letter, sent to Kerry over the weekend. "Such untenable situation requires that the Unites States, as the leader of the free world, provide the Free Syrian Army forces under the Supreme Military Council with the requisite advanced weapons to sustain defensive military capabilities in the face of the Assad forces."
When it was suggested to Layman that any deal to arm the rebels was highly unlikely to take place before the talks, he agreed. "That's my impression too." Layman said the expectation is for the talks to fail, which would give cover to the Obama administration to finally arm the rebels. "Geneva is a legitimate attempt at a negotiation ... but it's the last gasp for a political solution," he said.
He pointed to Kerry's remarks today at a press conference in Amman, Jordan. "If Assad refuses to negotiate on the proposals of the Geneva conference that calls for a transitional government in Syria, we will increase our support for the rebels," Kerry said.
Clearly, from the rebel perspective, they're hoping "support" means advanced weaponry. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Read Idris's full letter below: