US hints at possibility of arming Syrian rebels
Andrew Quinn, Arshad Mohammed, Reuters, Feb 21 2012
The US on Tuesday appeared to open the door to eventually arming the Syrian opposition, saying if a political solution to the crisis were impossible it might have to consider other options. The comments, made by officials at both the White House and the State Dept, marked a shift in emphasis by Washington, which thus far has stressed its policy of not arming the opposition and has said little about alternatives. Clinton will meet with representatives of some 70 countries in Tunis on Friday for the first “Friends of Syria” meeting. White House spokesman Carney said:
We still believe that a political solution is what’s needed in Syria. We don’t want to take actions that would contribute to the further militarization of Syria, because that could take the country down a dangerous path. But we don’t rule out additional measures.
State Dept spokeswoman Nuland, asked if the United States was shifting its stance on arming the rebels, said:
We don’t want to see the violence increase. We are concentrating on political efforts. That said, if we can’t get Assad to yield to the pressure that we are all bringing to bear, we may have to consider additional measures.
She declined to elaborate on what those measures might be. The official comments on Tuesday followed a cautious assessment from US Joint Chiefs chair Dempsey, who told CNN over the weekend that Washington still did not know enough about Assad’s opponents. Dempsey said:
Until we’re a lot clearer about who they are and what they are, I think it would be premature to talk about arming them.
The US and its allies hope this week’s Tunis meeting will allow them to begin drawing up a plan for Syria. US officials suggest the meeting will focus on ways to increase economic pressure on Assad through additional sanctions. But Arab diplomats have suggested that formal or informal moves to arm the rebels may also be discussed. With both Russia and Iran firmly backing Assad’s government, political analysts say tacit US support for arming rebel fighters could be risky given Syria’s complex ethnic and religious makeup and strategically important position. Robert Danin of the CFR wrote in an opinion piece on Tuesday:
Force employed by the Friends of Syria should be the last step of an escalatory ladder. Arming the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups may eventually help topple Assad, but it also increases the potential for a fractured or failed state.