Saturday 17 March 2018

US talks on arming Syria rebels

A UN soldier looks through binoculars towards Syria from an observation point in the Golan Heights (AP)
A UN soldier looks through binoculars towards Syria from an observation point in the Golan Heights (AP)

The US has begun talks on whether the Assad regime's rapid military advance across the heart of Syria necessitates a move to arm beleaguered rebels.

Top aides from the State and Defence Departments, the CIA and other agencies are gathering for a "deputies meeting" at the White House. They are seeking to lay the groundwork for a meeting that President Barack Obama will hold with his senior national security staff, planned for Wednesday, said officials.

Moved by the Assad regime's rapid advance, officials said the administration could approve lethal aid for the rebels in the coming days. The president and his advisers will also weigh the merits of a less likely move to send in US air power to enforce a no-fly zone over the nation wracked by civil war, officials said.

The White House meetings are taking place as Syrian President Bashar Assad's government forces are apparently poised for an attack on the key city of Homs, which could cut off Syria's armed opposition from the south of the country. As many as 5,000 Hezbollah fighters are now in Syria, officials believe, helping the regime press on with its campaign after capturing the town of Qusair near the Lebanese border last week.

Opposition leaders have warned Washington that their rebellion could face devastating and irreversible losses without greater support.

Secretary of State John Kerry postponed a planned trip to Israel and three other Mid East countries to participate in White House discussions.

While nothing has been concretely decided, US officials said Mr Obama was leaning closer towards signing off on sending weapons to vetted, moderate rebel units. The US has spoken of possibly arming the opposition in recent months but has hesitated because it does not want al Qaida-linked militants and other extremists fighting alongside the anti-Assad militias to end up with the weapons.

Mr Obama already has ruled out any intervention that would require US military boots on the ground. Other options such as deploying American air power to ground the regime's jets, gunships and other aerial assets are being more seriously debated, officials said, but they cautioned that a no-fly zone or any other action involving US military deployments in Syria were far less likely right now.

The president has declared chemical weapons use by the Assad regime a "red line" for more forceful US action. American allies including France and Britain say they have determined with near certitude that Syrian forces have used low levels of sarin in several attacks, but the administration is still studying the evidence.

Any intervention could have wide-reaching ramifications for the United States and the region. It would bring the US closer to a conflict that has killed almost 80,000 people since Assad cracked down on protesters inspired by the Arab Spring in March 2011 and sparked a war that has since been increasingly defined by sectarian clashes between the Sunni-led rebellion and Assad's Alawite-dominated regime.

Press Association

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