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Syria Analysis: Washington Supports Arming of Insurgents So the Regime Will Negotiate

Syrian military fires rockets from Mezzeh airport in Damascus on Wednesday.

See also Today's Syria Live Coverage: US "Non-Lethal" Assistance --- and More --- for the Insurgency
Wednesday's Syria Live Coverage: The Fighting Near Aleppo's Historic Mosque

Note - some of the comments were left behind when the URL changed. They can be found here.

A new, re-organised Syrian insurgency has received shipments of foreign weapons and ammunition in Daraa, Idlib, and Aleppo Provinces. Saudi Arabia is helping to purchase these arms, some of which are from the former Yugoslavia and specifically from Croatia. These foreign weapons have been used in battle. Combining them with more co-ordiation and new tactics, insurgents have made significant progress. At the same time, factions that have not received these shipments, including Jabhat al Nusra --- branded a terrorist organisation by the US Government --- have advanced in Deir Ez Zor and al Raqqah Provinces in the east.

The map below shows the general state of the conflict. Click the link to see a larger map in its own window:

View The State of the Syrian Conflict in a larger map

At the same time, the Assad regime has taken steps to ensure its military does not collapse, moving the majority of firepower towards Damascus and centring resistance in the capital. the regime has two advantages: Alawite neighborhoods that stand between rebel advances and the capital's most sensitive neighbourhoods, and the mountains and hills where Assad has stationed so much firepower, as Mike Giglio writes:

The biggest advantage for government forces in Damascus might be measured in height. Firas Abi Ali, the acting head of MENA forecasting at IHS Exclusive Analysis, a risk-consultancy firm in London, points out that the government is dug in well with tanks and heavy artillery on Mount Qasioun, the mountain that looms large over Damascus. “It allows whoever’s sitting there to overlook the rest of the city and target the city with observed fire—which means that if your first shell doesn’t hit your target, then the second and third shell will,” Abi Ali says. “They’ve got the high ground, and the weapons on the high ground, and the rebels don’t have the ability to deal with that. And they’re not going to for quite some time.”

Map of Assad military strongholds in the capital.

The Obama Administration has long been hesitant to arm the Syrian rebels, and has always favored a political settlement. However, they also want an end to this crisis, and they know that large amounts of Croatian weapons are being funneled across the border by some of America's closest allies in the region.

So has the US joined the foreign intervention through the arming of the insurgency?

In the majority of videos coming from the front lines, no foreign weapons are visible. One theory is that this was a "proof of concept": while an initial flow of advanced weapons was being established, the insurgency had to establish that it could progress --- even without that boost in armament --- through improvement in organisation and tactics. Events of the last month indicate that opposition brigades have passed the test.

Now, with the existence of the weapons revealed, Washington may be ready to officially endorse --- and possibly expand --- the arming of Syria's insurgency to move to the next stage: pushing the regime to the negotiating table

New Secretary of State John Kerry signaled earlier this week, as he set out for meetings in Europe and the Middle East, that the US was "not coming to Rome [for today's Friends of Syria meeting] simply to talk. We’re coming. . .to make decisions about next steps.” Furthermore, the Washington Post suggests, citing US and European officials, that new European Union provisions could mean that "non-lethal" military equipment could be given directly to the insurgents:

The E.U. inserted a clause that allows member countries “to provide greater non-lethal support and technical assistance for the protection of civilians....

Under the old E.U. setup, we couldn’t do anything,” a senior European official said. The new rule will allow “things that don’t of themselves kill people,” including night-vision equipment, armored vehicles and military training.

Another European official said, “We’re talking about things that can be helpful on the ground — bulletproof jackets, binoculars and communications.”

The US Secretary of State said on Wednesday:

"We are examining and developing ways to accelerate the transition the Syrian people seek and deserve."

He said Washington wanted the Syrian opposition's advice on how to speed up a political solution which would be the best way to end the bloodshed and protect the interests of the Syrian people.

"That may require us to change President al-Assad's current calculation," he said. "He needs to know he cannot shoot his way out of this, so we need to convince him of that and I think the opposition needs more help in order to be able to do that. And we are working together to have a united position."

The US is sending a signal to the regime that the time to negotiate is now. That signal may be heard in Moscow louder than it will be heard in Damascus, but it could put Russia in a spot where they will either have to pressure President Assad or watch as Syria's insurgents are further strengthened.

This, however, is not a full American move to military backing of the opposition. Kerry is hardly a hawk for intervention, and Obama has never signaled that he supports arming the insurgency.

So the questions: what happens if the regime will not make the essential commitment --- the departure of President Assad --- for the negotiations?

Given that the new "non-lethal" military aid is not enough to secure an insurgent victory, what next?

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