US may decide on arming rebels soon

SYRIAN SWAMP::John Kerry has delayed a trip to the Middle East to attend meetings on arming Syrian rebels. Meanwhile, an Israeli minister says al-Assad might prevail


Tue, Jun 11, 2013 - Page 7

The US could make a decision as early as this week on whether to arm Syrian rebels, a US official said yesterday.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the question of whether to arm rebels is on the agenda of White House meetings during the early part of this week.

The possible move by the US to arm the rebels who are fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government forces, was first reported by the Associated Press late on Sunday.

Separately, a source with US President Barack Obama’s administration said that US Secretary of State John Kerry has put off his planned trip to the Middle East in order to attend the meetings in Washington.

The renewed focus comes two years into the uprising against al-Assad that has sparked civil war and seen at least 80,000 people killed.

Al-Assad, whose Alawite minority is an offshoot of Shiite Islam and whose family has ruled Syria for more than four decades, is backed by Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

There are increasing concerns that al-Assad may be gaining the upper hand in the conflict as forces loyal to the government recently captured the key town of al-Qusayr.

Meanwhile, Israeli Minister for International Affairs, Strategy and Intelligence Yuval Steinitz yesterday said al-Assad might prevail in the uprising against him.

Though the assessment was quickly disavowed by others in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government, it reflected the difficulties facing Israel and Western countries in predicting Syria’s destiny and weighing intervention.

Steinitz was asked at a briefing with foreign journalists whether recent successes by al-Assad’s forces against outgunned rebels might herald victory for the Syrian leader.

“I always thought that it might be the case that at the end of the day, Assad, with a very strong Iranian and Hezbollah backing, might gain the upper hand,” Steinitz said. “And I think that this is possible and I thought that this is possible already a long time ago.”

Steinitz, who is not a member of Israel’s security Cabinet, but does have access to intelligence updates as well as Netanyahu’s ear, said al-Assad’s government “might not just survive but even regain territories” from the rebels.

He declined to comment further on a possible al-Assad victory, citing Israel’s policy of not meddling publicly in Syria.

The defense and foreign ministries received Steinitz’s remarks coolly.

“This is Steinitz’s personal informed — or rather, misinformed — position,” said one Israeli diplomat who asked not to be named.

Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said Steinitz was speaking for himself and that the Israeli government did not have a formal position on al-Assad’s prospects.

In June 2011, only three months after the Syrian uprising began with peaceful protests, then-Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak, the lone centrist in the previous government led by Netanyahu, forecast al-Assad’s fall “within weeks.”

Months later, after a full-fledged insurgency had developed, a senior Israeli official said Barak had been trying to “jump the gun” and encourage al-Assad’s foes to hasten his overthrow — an outcome that Israel viewed as inevitable at the time.

Yet the current Netanyahu government appears more cautious, given the four decades of stability al-Assad and his father before him had maintained on the Syrian-Israeli frontline.

Israel does not want chaos there, especially as it estimates that one in 10 of the anti-al-Assad rebels are radical Islamists.