WASHINGTON — Syria's rebels have seen an influx of arms including anti-tank weaponry for their fight against President Bashar al-Assad's government, in an effort coordinated with the help of the United States, a report said Wednesday.
|Free Syrian Army fighters shout "Allahu Akbar" near Deraa in this still image taken from a video obtained by Reuters May 17, 2012. REUTERS|
But Washington has stepped up links with the rebels and regional militaries allying with them, playing a role in the rebels' foreign support network, the report said.
"We are increasing our nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, and we continue to coordinate our efforts with friends and allies in the region and beyond in order to have the biggest impact on what we are collectively doing," a senior State Department official told the Post on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. administration's move to increase contact with the rebels, and boosting information-sharing with Gulf states who back them, is a shift in policy that up until now has resisted overt support for the armed groups battling Assad forces, the Post said.
Syria's anti-regime revolt entered its 15th month of relentless violence that has killed more than 12,000 people and growing fears that a UN-backed peace plan will fail.
The United States has vowed to increase pressure on Assad to step down and the issue will be raised at the upcoming NATO meeting in Chicago, with US officials urging Damascus to implement a plan pushed by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan seeking a resolution to the crisis.
Brian Becker, director of the anti-war coalition ANSWER, told Russia TV in an interview that "The U.S. has scripted things in a way that peace is impossible in Syria. ... I think Saudi Arabia, Qatar have their own interest in terms of reorganizing the Middle East, principally weakening Syria, weakening Iran, changing the relationship of forces in Lebanon. But behind Qatar and Saudi Arabia and even Turkey, which has its own regional ambitions, are the United States and NATO countries, the former colonizers of Syria and the region, who are committed to overthrowing the Assad government. They have crossed the Rubicon now in terms of preparing for the all-out intervention, including military intervention by NATO forces. They will use, ultimately, military power to overthrow an independent government that they want to replace with a proxy regime in this important region."
Becker called the UN peace plan "dead in the water at this point" due to the U.S. , Saudi Arabia and Qatar "pumping huge quantities of weapons right into the middle of Damascus and other areas ... their intention is not to have a negotiated settlement but an all-out civil war as a precursor to a NATO intervention. "
Ultimately, Becker said, "The Western powers and NATO see the destruction of the Iranian government as the ultimate prize in terms of a reconfiguring, re-colonizing, of the Middle East. Iran has been independent since 1979; it has an ally in the Assad government and the Assad government also was a bridge to Hizbullah in Lebanon. I think the United States sees the destruction of the Assad government as part of an effort to reshape Lebanon and ultimately to overthrow the Islamic republic in Iran – not to make it more humanitarian, more democratic, but to put in place in Tehran a proxy acquiescent regime.
New clashes erupt in Lebanon
Unrest spilled over into neighboring Lebanon at the weekend, where political parties are divided, with one side backing the Syrian opposition and the other Assad's regime.
Nine people were killed in the mainly Sunni Muslim northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli after sectarian clashes erupted on Saturday between residents of rival neighborhoods.
Calm was restored by early Tuesday after the army deployed and gunmen withdrew from the majority Sunni Muslim district of Bab el-Tebbaneh, and Jabal Mohsen, where the majority of residents are from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'a Islam loyal to Assad's regime.
But at least four people were wounded on Wednesday in clashes between the army and residents of the two cities.
Syrian forces were accused Wednesday of having "executed" 15 civilians, as the office of envoy Kofi Annan said members of a UN observer team were evacuated a day after a bomb blast hit their convoy.
"After regime forces raided the neighborhood of Shammas (in the central city of Homs), 15 civilians were found summarily executed," Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, in what he branded a "massacre."
The overnight killings came one day after regime forces were accused of another massacre in the town of Khan Sheikhun in northwest Idlib when they opened fire on a funeral procession and reportedly killed 20 people.
Emerging Islamic terrorists
Meanwhile, analysts say emerging jihadists carrying out attacks in Syria are either acting independently or for regime.
The Syrian conflict has bred the emergence of obscure jihadists carrying out bloody attacks, either acting independently or manipulated by the regime seeking to tarnish the image of its opposition, analysts say.
"Al-Qaeda does not exist in Syria. But there are at present several splinter groups of jihadists who employ the same strategies," said Mathieu Guidere, a France-based analyst who specializes in the Arab and Muslim world.
"We know that these are Syrians, not foreigners, and that they are very few. For now, nobody knows them -- neither Al-Qaeda nor the rebels," he added.
On May 10, twin suicide bombings in Damascus killed at least 55 people and wounded 372 -- the deadliest attacks since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime erupted in March 2011.
Al-Nusra Front, an Islamist group unknown before the Syrian revolt, claimed responsibility for the bombings as well as previous attacks in the capital and in the northern city of Aleppo.
"Law and order are also breaking down in Syria, which means that we should expect the spread of radical groups," Middle East analyst Joshua Landis writes in his blog.
Whatever their identity, the perpetrators of these attacks are "using signature Al-Qaeda tactics," said Guidere, adding that "simultaneous attacks are the trademark" of the network founded by Osama bin Laden.
The escalation of violent attacks, reminiscent of those carried out in neighboring Iraq and claimed by extremist groups linked to Al-Qaeda, have raised fears of an "Iraqization" of Syria.
Washington, which has long accused Damascus of turning a blind eye to extremists crossing through the Syrian border into Iraq, had refused to supply arms to the rebels, lest they fall into the hands of Al-Qaeda.
In the absence of any evidence about the sponsors of the attacks, Guidere, author of several books on Al-Qaeda, proposes two hypotheses:
"It could be splinter groups who, like Somalia's Al-Shabab (Islamist insurgents), want to be recognized as Al-Qaeda."
"The second and more credible hypothesis is that these groups carry out -- or are made to carry out the attacks -- so that the general public confuses them with Al-Qaeda," he added.
Who benefits from the attacks?
The latest bombings primarily benefit the Syrian regime, analysts say, which, from the start of the 14-month revolt, has described the uprising as a Western-backed Al-Qaeda plot and its opponents as "terrorists" to justify its crackdown.
"Bashar al-Assad has said: 'If anybody dares to challenge my rule, there will be chaos.' What he said is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center.
Shaikh noted there was no clear link between the regime and the bomb attacks, as the opposition has charged, "but at the end of the day, the responsibility lies with the regime because it has pursued only a security approach."
"It is the regime who created this environment and the international community has allowed the situation to drift," he added.
Shaikh added that a small group like Al-Nusra Front would not be able to pull off such "sophisticated" attacks without the help of "much more professional forces."
Would the rebels, frustrated by the impasse of the conflict, have resorted to terrorism?
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has openly expressed support for the Syrian revolt, something which the rebel groups have rejected as "interference."
This type of attack could not benefit the rebels, who have no interest in being linked to Al-Qaeda," Guidere said.
International Crises Group said the regime appeared to stand to gain the most from the mayhem.
"Some observers suspect a regime hand in events that served its interests: damaging its foes' image; mobilising and radicalising its own popular base; frightening the many Syrian fence-sitters; and heightening Western reluctance to become involved in a muddled and messy conflict.
"The blasts almost certainly produced all those effects," it said.
Despite the Islamist rhetoric adopted by many rebels and opposition figures, analysts point out that the agenda of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood bears no relation to the jihadist militancy of Al-Qaeda.
"We know the traditions of Islamists of Al-Qaeda. These guys are doing it out of ideology ... The Muslim Brotherhood or even Salafists are very different," said Shaikh. "It is like oil and water, the two don't mix."