Washington’s Newfound Interest in Syria

How the Syrian Conflict Evolved from a Second Thought into a Major Issue

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Before February 2013, focus on Syria seemed rather intermittent on nearly all political and media fronts. Apart from the dedicated usual suspects such as Senators McCain and Graham, and the conflict’s most vocal advocates in the media, attention towards Syria began to dim last fall, and have since undulated with particular events on the ground. Massacres, high-profile bombings and deaths, fears of the war’s regionalization, and Mr. Brahimi’s good-intentioned but ill-fated plans for political transition received interest while key battles, gains, and politico-military developments went largely unnoticed by the wider public.

But at the beginning of February, a number of key events occurred nearly simultaneously that catapulted the “Syria Issue” into wide-scale political, public, and international recognition. This combination of information leaks, political events, strategic victories, and secrecy-shrouded power plays created a perfect storm that made February 2013 perhaps the most important month for the Syrian conflict.

January 30th: The Israeli Air Force strikes a convoy in Rif Damascus province, 5km from the Lebanese border, carrying SA-17 Grizzly missiles bound for Hezbollah, and is suspected of hitting a military research center. Fears of conflict regionalization, threats to Israeli security, and the increasing military capabilities of Hezbollah skyrocket.

February 2nd: Information surfaces that the White House blocked summer 2012 policy recommendations from a team of senior diplomats and advisors–including then Secretary of State Clinton, former CIA Director David Petraeus, and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta–to arm moderate FSA units. The story receives brief yet intense media coverage, and focuses criticism on the Obama administration’s relative lack of official policy regarding the conflict.

February 5th: Reports suggest that Jabhat al-Nusra has become active in Homs province. The extremist group is now present in all of Syria’s theaters of battle.

February 11th/12th: Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and their Islamist affiliates play a central role in overrunning Tabqa Dam and al-Jarrah airbase, both major installations for the regime in the northern territories. The credibility and tactical capabilities of these groups increase, drawing international attention.

February 12th: The UN Rights Chief announces that the death toll in Syria has likely reached 70,000.

February 12th: Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps General Hassan Shateri is killed in Zabadani, Syria, near the Lebanese border. In charge of “reconstruction assistance” in Lebanon, it is suspected that Shateri was providing support to Syrian Army forces or Hezbollah units fighting in Syria’s west. This is the first instance in over a year revealing publicly the presence of Iranian military personnel on the ground in Syria.

February 18th: Secretary of State John Kerry announces that he will travel to Europe and the Middle East, and that the Syrian conflict, as well as talks with Opposition leaders, will be planned in Rome. SOC President Khatib announces that he will remain absent from the talks in response to the U.S. inaction in Syria and its silence towards regime Scud strikes in Aleppo, signaling a rift in relations between the U.S. and Syria’s future transitional government.

February 24th: Representative Eliot Engel, author of the 2003 Syria Accountability Act and long-time opponent of the Assad regime, announces that he will introduce legislation that would authorize the Obama administration to provide lethal assistance to FSA forces.

February 25th: SOC President Khatib agrees to meet Secretary of State Kerry in Rome, reportedly after Vice President Joe Biden makes a personal call to Khatib to emphasize the meeting’s importance.

February 25th: The New York Times releases an in-depth article describing the path of technologically advanced Croatian arms into Syria via Saudi-financed channels. Though these new weapons, which include recoilless anti-tank rifles and anti-armor rockets, began to enter Syria through Turkey and Jordan, they began to quickly proliferate across Syria. Strategy shifts to put more pressure on Damascus, along with the newfound capabilities these weapons provide, combine to influence significant Opposition progress in the capital city and elsewhere. The idea that a final surge is in motion spreads throughout the international community.

February 25th: The Syrian Army withdraws in its entirety from the Golan region to allocated more troops to Damascus, leaving the Syrian side of the Golan territory in rebel hands.

February 26th: Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s second-in-command, is wounded (some report that he was killed) in an attack similar to the one that killed IRGC commander Shateri. Though the fact that Hezbollah has been active in Syria is known, more attention is focused on their specific activities in the country. It is found that Hezbollah units, alongside their trained Syrian militiamen in Jaysh al-Sha’abi, are involved in some of the heaviest fighting in and around populous Shia areas in al-Qusayr, Homs. SSG’s sources in the FSA report that these groups are the most difficult to combat, and are mainly active on al-Qusayr’s western front.

February 28th: During his visit to Rome to meet the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Secretary of State John Kerry pledges $60 million in additional aid to be directed towards the Supreme Military Council. The aid is described to be non-lethal in nature. The Supreme Military Council is appreciative of the policy shift, but note that non-lethal supplies alone do not win wars.

The timing of the political moves made by Washington’s policymakers suggest that they were, at least in part, influenced by this high concentration of media attention towards Syria policy and events, as well as battlefield occurrences themselves. The initiatives mentioned by Kerry and Engel may be part of larger U.S. policy shifts regarding the armed Opposition, or they may be attempts to quell the criticisms following the leak of the vetoed summer initiative pushed by Clinton et al. Whatever the reason, Syria’s success at drawing attention from Washington has continued healthily into March, with SMC Commander Idris’s first U.S. television interview, the capture of Al-Raqqah City led by Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, and the capture of Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque and Police Academy by more moderate FSA units. With rebel gains outpacing losses, a major city in the hands of the Opposition, and noose closing tighter around Damascus’s east and south, continuing U.S. support towards the Opposition may indeed allow future administrations to command some amount of influence in Syria’s restructuring.

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