The United States is reconsidering the level of support it provides the Syrian opposition trying to overthrow the Damascus government following increasing evidence that President Bashar al-Assad's forces have used chemical weapons.
But even before President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials acknowledged last week that some chemical weapons had been used in Syria, tensions had already been rising between Washington and the Syrian opposition groups.
Those tensions come more than two years into a bloody conflict that the U.S. and the United Nations say has killed more than 80,000 people.
Secretary of State John Kerry announced
recently that the United States will double its non-lethal military aid to Syrian rebel forces to a total of $123 million. The aid consists mainly of food, medical supplies, night-vision goggles and protective gear, but not weapons.
Prominent activist Ahmed Mouaz al-Khatib, who served for more than five months as president of the Syrian National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, reaffirmed his intent to resign as Coalition president.
... Syrians have always held the United States on a pedestal ... But they are seeing their families getting slaughtered without any help from the leader of the world.
Khatib first announced his resignation more than three weeks ago, claiming bitter disappointment over his repeated failure to persuade Western governments to send much-needed weapons for insurgent forces in Syria.
The Coalition’s media director, Khalid Saleh, told VOA many Syrians echo Khatib’s frustrations and focus their anger on the United States.
“When the revolution first started and Ambassador (Robert) Ford was still in Syria and he traveled to the city of Hama (for memorial services for activists), I think the people in Syria held the United States in a very high place,” Saleh said.
“But as time passed on and no weapons were provided and more and more deaths were happening - every day now we average 150 to 200 deaths - … the frustration, the anger, if I might say, is directed toward the United States because Syrians have always held the United States on a pedestal ... But they are seeing their families getting slaughtered without any help from the leader of the world,” Saleh added.
Opposition asks for surgical strikes
A Coalition statement
issued after a meeting with Kerry demanded “specific and immediate” measures to prevent the Assad regime from using chemical weapons or ballistic missiles through surgical strikes against launch locations using unmanned aerial vehicles -- drones.
The statement continues, “The technical ability to take specific action to prevent the human tragedy and suffering of innocent civilians, mostly women and children, is available … yet nothing serious has been done to put an end to such terror and criminality.”
Saleh also said that members of the Coalition who met with Kerry in Istanbul recently made informal requests for a “coalition of the willing” to execute surgical air strikes against the Syrian regime’s Scud missile bases and the presidential palace.
“We believe surgical strikes against certain military installations would inspire massive desertions,” Saleh added.
Enter the extremist element
The United States has been reluctant to send weapons to rebels in Syria, according to some U.S. officials, because of fears the weapons would wind up in the hands of extremist forces such as Jabhat al-Nusra and others jihadists linked to al-Qaida in Iraq.
I think that al-Qaida, in this case, is part of the problem, but it is not the fundamental problem.
Yet despite the increased presence of al-Qaida operatives in Syria, the United States is not likely to target Nusra fighters with drones as they have al-Qaida fighters in Yemen and Pakistan, says Michael O’Hanlon
, a national security fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
“I think that al-Qaida, in this case, is part of the problem, but it is not the fundamental problem,” O'Hanlon said.
In the coming months, he added, Washington will “see more of a need to make sure that the war tilts toward the opposition, and if it doesn’t, we’ll consider … a range of things that we can do.”
“And I think arms shipments become a more plausible first step than drones,” O'Hanlon said.
No unanimity in Washington
In recent testimony
before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary of State Kerry spoke in favor of cooperating with Syrian rebels. He said the U.S. works “very very closely” with the opposition coalition and other partners who are providing rebel units with lethal aid.
Committee chairman Carl Levin expressed concern that the United States is not sending a strong enough message to the Syrian president. “I believe that the time has come for the United States to intensify the military pressure on Assad.”
Yet during the same committee hearing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expressed caution about greater military support for rebels in Syria.
Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, echoed Hagel’s concern. Dempsey, who had previously supported weapons for approved rebel forces, told the committee that the current state of the armed opposition is “actually more confusing… than it was six months ago.” Dempsey said he was no longer confident that the United States could guarantee that lethal aid would get “to the right people.”