The Cable

Syrian Rebels' Representatives Divided Over White House Arms Pledge

You'd think the Syrian rebels and their representatives would be uniformly overjoyed at the news that the U.S. is finally going to provide them with some small arms. Not exactly. In interviews with The Cable, spokesmen for the two groups lobbying for the anti-Assad forces in Washington struck noticeably different tones in reaction to the White House's pledge to ship weapons to the rebels. One faction is cheering for the American show of support. The other is grumbling that it's not enough.

The Syrian Support Group (SSG), the only organization licensed by the U.S. government to provide financial and non-lethal support to rebel fighters, and the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF), which boasts extensive contacts with rebel commanders, spent months lobbying Congress, the State Department and the White House for everything from small arms to anti-tank and and anti-aircraft weapons to body armor to advanced communications equipment for the rebels. But with a key component of that lobbying effort achieved following a White House assessment that the Assad regime "used chemical weapons" against the rebels, representatives of the groups are of two minds.

One of the major arguments against arming the Syrian opposition has been that the rebels are far from a coherent group. Some are pro-Western, others are al-Qaeda allies. The anti-government forces have at times been riven by in-fighting. Even their lobbyists in Washington can't seem to agree.

"This is very exciting," Dan Layman, director of media relations at SSG, said. "This is the result we've been working towards since the first major chemical attacks back in March. With this new guarantee of direct military support [Free Syrian Army commander Gen. Salim] Idris will enjoy new leverage that the opposition can take to the table at Geneva. I think this will make their attendance more likely and far more meaningful."

But Elizabeth O'Bagy, political director at SETF, doubted whether the administration's new pledge amounted to a significant policy change. "It's not enough," she told The Cable. "Small arms and ammunition really only get you so far against airplanes. And I wonder how much of this is simply an announcement of what they've already been doing on the ground," referring to pre-existing administration efforts to encourage Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to ship weapons into the country with assistance from the U.S.

"We're happy the administration has recognized the regime's chemical weapons use, but it's embarrassing that we didn't recognize it earlier," she continued. She emphasized SETF's advocacy of safe zones, a type of scaled back no-fly zone that would offer the rebels protection from Assad's air superiority.

Layman, meanwhile relayed a discussion SSG had with Idris "in the past two days," requesting weapons similar to M60 recoilless rifles, Metis and Konkurs antitank systems and SA-18 antiaircraft systems from Croatia. While eager to lobby Washington for all of Idris's demands, he was optimistic that the delivery of small arms would satisfy Idris's precondition of more weaponry before heading into the U.S.-Russia sponsored peace talks in Geneva that have proved difficult to get off the ground. "We of course still favor a political solution that includes Assad leaving power and authority being transitioned to an opposition civilian government," Layman said.

While both groups have similarly maximalist ambitions for arming the Free Syrian Army with any number of advanced anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, their leadership have been known to clash: Specifically, SSG founder Louay Sakka and SETF executive director Mouaz Moustafa.

"It's a personal feud," said a source familiar with the rivalry, who compared it to fractions within the Syrian opposition movement in general. "This is exactly why the National Coalition can't get together because you have all these personal rivalries and feuds between the different members. It becomes difficult to coordinate."

Update: Mouaz Moustafa responds in an e-mail to The Cable

I as executive director of the Task Force want to say that I welcome the decision of the administration for providing greater military aid to the FSA and i call on the administration to take steps for a no fly zone.  But other than that I want you to know that I have always had only the best to say about Louay Sakka and I have no personal feud whatsoever with him.

The Cable

Red Lined: White House Says It Knows For Sure That Assad Used Chemical Weapons

President Obama's "red line" has been crossed, it appears. The White House declared on Thursday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in small doses against rebel forces -- and that America would begin to provide military aid to the opposition in response. The decision saddles the CIA with providing arms to vetted rebel fighters in the country.

"Our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, said in a statement, noting that between 100-150 have been killed by chemical attacks in Syria. "The President has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has."

He added in a conference call with reporters, "The president has made a decision about providing more support to the opposition that will involve providing direct support to the Supreme Military Council. That includes military support."

In recent months, the administration had been reluctant to declare the Assad regime used chemical weapons, and repeatedly redrew Obama's red line to make sure Assad didn't step over it. As far back as April, the U.S. intelligence community uncovered blood samples taken from multiple people that tested positive for the nerve agent sarin.

Whether the decision will vastly alter views on intervention in Congress is yet to be seen, but shortly after the announcement, Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who had previously opposed the shipment of U.S. arms to Syria, changed his mind. 

"It is now clear that the Assad regime has crossed a red line," he said in a statement. "I  support the President's decision to expand assistance for the vetted Syrian opposition, and I encourage the Administration to begin, in earnest, arming the Free Syrian Army." 

Members of Congress advocating for more aggressive U.S. intervention in Syria immediately jumped on the news. "In using chemical weapons, #Assad committed a war crime against his own people," tweeted Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). "What more does the civilized world need?"

In a statement, House Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI), gave the president a backhanded compliment. "I am pleased that President Obama's Administration has joined the growing international chorus declaring that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons," reads the statement. "The United States should assist the Turks and our Arab League partners to create safe zones in Syria from which the U.S. and our allies can train, arm, and equip vetted opposition forces."

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, encouraged the president to openly lay out his position. "I want to urge the president to exercise leadership by ...  publicly make the case to the American people for arming moderate forces," Corker said. "Such an effort would embrace the approach passed overwhelmingly by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and would acknowledge the enormous risks for the U.S. and region from the worsening conflict, which could lead to an extremist takeover." 

In one of the more hawkish statements to emerge on Thursday, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), voiced his support for a U.S. enforced no-fly zone over Syira. "I think its time we act in a very serious way, if a no-fly zone is what they've decided to do, I'm sure our military has taken the right preparations for carrying out a successful operation and I'll support that," said Chambliss when asked about reports the Pentagon is proposing a no-fly zone in Syria.

Both the CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence directed inquiries  to the White House. 

So the question becomes: what's next? Last month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a bill to authorize the shipment of lethal weapons to the opposition by a vote of 15-3. While more hawkish lawmakers have advocated the establishment of a no fly zone, the Pentagon has demonstrated an institutional resistance to the plan, given the Assad regime's significant anti-aircraft defenses.

Meanwhile, public polling indicates an overwhelming opposition to intervene in the country. In a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, just 15 percent in the poll said they favor U.S. military action, and only 11 percent supported the shipment of arms to rebels. At the same time, President Obama faced pressure from President Bill Clinton this week, who said Obama risks looking like a "wuss" and a "fool" by not more aggressively intervening in the country. And that was before the White House confirmed that Assad had gone chemical.

Additional reporting by John Reed.