- 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.
You’d think the Syrian rebels and their representatives would be uniformly overjoyed at the news that the U.S. is finally going to provide them with some small arms. Not exactly. In interviews with The Cable, spokesmen for the two groups lobbying for the anti-Assad forces in Washington struck noticeably different tones in reaction to the White House’s pledge to ship weapons to the rebels. One faction is cheering for the American show of support. The other is grumbling that it’s not enough.
The Syrian Support Group (SSG), the only organization licensed by the U.S. government to provide financial and non-lethal support to rebel fighters, and the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF), which boasts extensive contacts with rebel commanders, spent months lobbying Congress, the State Department and the White House for everything from small arms to anti-tank and and anti-aircraft weapons to body armor to advanced communications equipment for the rebels. But with a key component of that lobbying effort achieved following a White House assessment that the Assad regime "used chemical weapons" against the rebels, representatives of the groups are of two minds.
One of the major arguments against arming the Syrian opposition has been that the rebels are far from a coherent group. Some are pro-Western, others are al-Qaeda allies. The anti-government forces have at times been riven by in-fighting. Even their lobbyists in Washington can’t seem to agree.
"This is very exciting," Dan Layman, director of media relations at SSG, said. "This is the result we’ve been working towards since the first major chemical attacks back in March. With this new guarantee of direct military support [Free Syrian Army commander Gen. Salim] Idris will enjoy new leverage that the opposition can take to the table at Geneva. I think this will make their attendance more likely and far more meaningful."
But Elizabeth O’Bagy, political director at SETF, doubted whether the administration’s new pledge amounted to a significant policy change. "It’s not enough," she told The Cable. "Small arms and ammunition really only get you so far against airplanes. And I wonder how much of this is simply an announcement of what they’ve already been doing on the ground," referring to pre-existing administration efforts to encourage Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to ship weapons into the country with assistance from the U.S.
"We’re happy the administration has recognized the regime’s chemical weapons use, but it’s embarrassing that we didn’t recognize it earlier," she continued. She emphasized SETF’s advocacy of safe zones, a type of scaled back no-fly zone that would offer the rebels protection from Assad’s air superiority.
Layman, meanwhile relayed a discussion SSG had with Idris "in the past two days," requesting weapons similar to M60 recoilless rifles, Metis and Konkurs antitank systems and SA-18 antiaircraft systems from Croatia. While eager to lobby Washington for all of Idris’s demands, he was optimistic that the delivery of small arms would satisfy Idris’s precondition of more weaponry before heading into the U.S.-Russia sponsored peace talks in Geneva that have proved difficult to get off the ground. "We of course still favor a political solution that includes Assad leaving power and authority being transitioned to an opposition civilian government," Layman said.
While both groups have similarly maximalist ambitions for arming the Free Syrian Army with any number of advanced anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, their leadership have been known to clash: Specifically, SSG founder Louay Sakka and SETF executive director Mouaz Moustafa.
"It’s a personal feud," said a source familiar with the rivalry, who compared it to fractions within the Syrian opposition movement in general. "This is exactly why the National Coalition can’t get together because you have all these personal rivalries and feuds between the different members. It becomes difficult to coordinate."
Update: Mouaz Moustafa responds in an e-mail to The Cable:
I as executive director of the Task Force want to say that I welcome the decision of the administration for providing greater military aid to the FSA and i call on the administration to take steps for a no fly zone. But other than that I want you to know that I have always had only the best to say about Louay Sakka and I have no personal feud whatsoever with him.