The Obama administration lent its support Monday to British and French plans to arm Syria’s rebels, saying it wouldn’t stand in the way of any country seeking to rebalance the fight against an Assad regime supported by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
Secretary of State John Kerry said the longer Syria’s two-year civil war goes on, the greater the danger of its institutions collapsing and extremists getting their hands on the Arab country’s vast chemical weapons arsenal. With some 450,000 Syrians living in neighboring countries as refugees already, he said the conflict is becoming a “global catastrophe.”
Kerry said the world needs to change Syrian President Bashar Assad’s calculations.
“If he believes he can shoot it out, Syrians and the region have a problem, and the world has a problem,” Kerry told reporters after a meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr.
Kerry said the US wants to leave the door open for a political solution. But concerning Syria’s rebels, he added, “the United States does not stand in the way of other countries that made a decision to provide arms, whether it’s France or Britain or others.”
The comments come after French President Francois Hollande said last week that his country and Britain were pushing the European Union to lift its arms embargo on Syria as soon as possible so that they can send weapons to rebel fighters and thereby help level the battlefield against the Assad regime.
The two countries are seeking military help for the rebels by the end of May or earlier if possible. But Germany and other EU nations have been skeptical about sending weapons, pointing to the risk of further escalation in a volatile region.
Leaders at a EU summit last week failed to agree on whether to arm Syrian rebels. France and Britain were pushing for an opportunity to provide munitions to the rebels while countries, notably Germany, opposed the move.
NATO Secretary General Fogh Rasmussen said Monday that the proposition put forward last week by Britain and France to lift an arms embargo on Syria is ultimately an EU decision, not a NATO one.
“This issue is an European question and I speak on behalf of NATO… As secretary general I have no intention whatsoever to interfere with this discussion within the EU,” he said in response to a reporter’s question at a press conference in Brussels.
He explained that NATO’s main goal is to effectively protect and defend its allies. Speaking about the organization’s decision to deploy Patriot missiles along the Turkish-Syrian border, Rasmussen said the move was made with that goal in mind.
“I am sure that the decision to deploy these Patriot missiles has also contributed to de-escalate the situation along the Syrian-Turkish border,” he said.
French President Francois Hollande said Thursday that his country and Britain are pushing the EU to lift the arms embargo on Syria so that they could help rebel fighters even the battlefield against the Assad regime, which he said is propped by Russia and others.
“France must first convince its European partners. But we cannot let a people be massacred like this,” Hollande told reporters in Brussels.
Earlier in the week, British Prime Minister David Cameron said his country would consider vetoing an extension of the EU embargo if the situation in Syria didn’t improve.
Hitting back, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that doing so would constitute a breach in international law. “International law does not permit the supply of arms to non-governmental actors,” Lavrov told a joint news conference in London with British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
The EU has a blanket embargo against shipping arms to Syria. Last month, the EU decided to soften the embargo and allow its member countries to provide non-lethal aid to the rebels. The leaders are meeting again in Dublin next Friday.
The United States long held the same skeptical conviction that Germany does, with President Barack Obama and other officials saying more weapons in Syria would only make peace harder. As the violence has worsened over the last year, Washington has tempered that message somewhat. It is now promising nonlethal aid to the anti-Assad militias in the form of meals and medical kits, and refusing to rule out further escalation.
Support for greater US involvement appears to be growing in Congress. On Monday, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee introduced legislation to train and arm vetted Syrian opposition forces.
The groups must be opposed to Assad, willing to establish a peaceful and democratic Syria and committed to securing and safeguarding chemical and biological weapons. No aid could go to a group associated with a foreign terrorist organization, according to the bill by Rep. Eliot Engel of New York.
“It is time for us to develop a comprehensive approach to stopping the carnage,” he said in a letter to his colleagues last week.
At the State Department, Kerry said there is a fundamental imbalance in Syria’s civil war, in which millions have been pushed from their homes and more than 70,000 were killed.
The Assad regime is attacking with tanks, scud missiles and aircraft that the rebels don’t have. And Kerry said Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda-related elements are helping Assad.
With al-Qaeda and its allies, it’s unclear what support the secretary of state was describing. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has clearly backed Syria’s rebels, which has been acknowledged by US and other Western officials, particularly through its relationship with Jabhat al-Nusra — which the US has declared a foreign terrorist organization.