- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
With regime-backed Hezbollah fighters advancing on the rebel stronghold of Aleppo following a swift victory over anti-government forces in Qusair last week, Brigadier General Salmi Idris, leader of the rebels’ Supreme Military Council, placed an urgent phone call with Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) on Wednesday. "His voice just gave a real sense of urgency and concern" said Casey. "He said what happened in Qusair could happen in Aleppo." Idris apparently got the memo that now is the time to lobby Washington hardest on intervening more aggressively in Syria.
The rebels’ defeat to Hezbollah fighters last week cost them a stronghold near the Lebanese border, which they had spent a year fortifying with mines, booby traps, and tunnels. Now, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is preparing an offensive on rebel-held Aleppo, According to reports on the ground, thousands of Alawites enlisted in pro-regime militia groups are headed to Aleppo. The loss of the city would be devastating to the rebels from a strategic standpoint.
Meanwhile, in Washington, an internal memorandum circulating inside the Obama administration says "the intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale against the opposition mutilple times in the last year," according to the New York Times. The paper reports that Obama "now believes the proof is definitive," meaning the regime violated his own "red line." This comes as senior administration officials have said the decision of whether to arm Syrian rebels has dominated senior-level meetings in the last few days, which Secretary of State John Kerry postponed his trip to Israel to attend. Adding to the grist of Washington’s "do-something" caucus, the United Nations revised its official death toll in Syria to 93,000 up from 80,000 in mid-May.
In his conversation with Casey, Idris "made very clear to me, they are in need of not just greater support, but very specific support: anti-tank weaponry and some kind of anti-aircraft weaponry," according to Casey. Speaking to his concerns about losing the rebel-held stronghold of Aleppo, Casey said Idris believed "there are 5,000 Hezbollah fighters prepared to advance on Aleppo with the help of the regime’s air superiority."
Casey, of course, has been at the forefront of advocating for more military aid in Syria, authorizing a bill back in March that shaped a weapons bill that passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a 15-3 vote in May. Other Democrats have similarly pressured the White House to act on Syria such as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Eliot Engel (D-NY) on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Ironically, one of the lawmakers providing the most cover for the administration’s cautious approach to Syria is Republican Senator Rand Paul, who has warned repeatedly that militarizing the conflict could put weapons in the hands of extremist groups, such as the al Qaeda aligned al-Nusrah Front.
During his phone call with Idris, Casey said "I emphasized that we can not be seen as helping al Nusrah or any other extremist groups and Idris made it clear to me that he agrees." The Pentagon, meanwhile, has vacillated about whether it’s logistically possible to keep weapons out the hands of extremists in a conflict involving a complex mix of opposition groups. The rebels — and Casey — may want the weapons. Getting them is another matter.