- 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.
Members of the Syrian opposition reacted in horror on Wednesday to a new report that President Bashar al-Assad has offered his cooperation on the removal of chemical weapons in exchange for armored trucks, advanced communications gear and other equipment with both military and civilian applications. The Syrians warned that the equipment could accelerate the regime’s killing of civilians and, at the same time, implicate the international community in the bloodshed.
"After decades of deceit, there is every reason to believe that the Syrian regime will use this equipment to inflict further suffering on the Syrian people," Dr. Najib Ghabdian, special representative from the Syrian Coalition to the U.S. and the United Nations, told The Cable. "The delivery of military-grade equipment to the Syrian regime risks implicating the international community in the murder of innocent Syrian civilians."
On Tuesday, The Cable reported exclusively on a confidential proposal the Assad regime presented to the United Nation’s chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), that sought foreign help to secure the road between Damascus to the port city of Latakia, where the weapons would be shipped overseas for destruction. The Assad government said it needed the vehicles and communications equipment to achieve the OPCW’s ambitious goal of eliminating all of Syria’s chemical weapons by the end of next summer.
The plan – particularly Assad’s request for an advanced communications network linking Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea — is infuriating a Syrian opposition already suspicious of the UN’s chemical weapons deal with Assad.
"The Syrian Coalition fully supports the removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, by credible and neutral international actors," said Ghadbian. "The United Nations must, however, take all necessary precautions to ensure that it does not equip the Assad dictatorship with the means to perpetrate further massacres."
The proposal, conveyed to the head of the OPCW by Syria’s foreign minister late last month, puts the United States in a sticky situation: risk providing military equipment to a regime already accused of the killing of tens of thousands of its own people or risk preventing the Assad regime from being able to transfer the chemical weapons out of the country for destruction.
To the opposition, it’s a false choice.
"It’s ridiculous," Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the pro-rebel lobby Syrian Emergency Task Force, told The Cable. "The regime’s feet should be held to the fire, not accommodated."
At the moment, the Assad regime is capitalizing on the growing rifts between Syria’s rebels and advancing on rebel strongholds in northern Syria, according to reports. On Friday, pro-Assad forces took control of the strategic town of Safira near Aleppo. The loss precipitated the resignation of Col. Abdul Jabbar Akaidi, a top leader of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army. From a strategic standpoint, it also gave the Assad regime a key supply link between Damascus and the north, which could help put Aleppo in play.
Meanwhile, even the beginnings of a diplomatic solution to the crisis remain elusive. Talks between top diplomats representing Russia, the United States and the UN this week failed to produce a date for convening the long-awaited Geneva II peace conference between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime.
"We were hoping that we would be in a position to announce a date today. Unfortunately we are not." Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN’s special envoy on Syria, said Tuesday. "We are still striving to see if we can have a conference before the end of the year." Brahimi, in part, attributed the scheduling difficulties to the disorganization of the Syrian opposition. "They are divided, that’s no secret for anyone, they are facing all sorts of problems," he said.
Despite those divisions, the opposition remains united in its skepticism over the UN’s chemical weapons deal with Assad. "The United Nations has stated in the past that it will not provide dual-use materials to the Syrian regime, and it is incumbent upon the international community to ensure that it maintains this commitment," said Ghadbian.