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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 17 July 2018

Obama pledges to increase support for Syrian rebels

"We will step up our efforts to support Syria’s neighbours — Jordan and Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq — as they host refugees, and confront terrorists working across Syrian borders,” said the US president.
US President Barack Obama gives the commencement address at this year's graduation ceremony at the US Military Academy at West Point on May 28. Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP
US President Barack Obama gives the commencement address at this year's graduation ceremony at the US Military Academy at West Point on May 28. Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP

NEW YORK // US president Barack Obama announced plans to increase support to Syria’s rebels and for a new $5 billion counter-terrorism fund that will in part help regional countries address the refugee crisis and security threats produced by the civil war.

“With the additional resources I’m announcing today, we will step up our efforts to support Syria’s neighbours — Jordan and Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq — as they host refugees, and confront terrorists working across Syrian borders,” Mr Obama said during an address to graduating cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.

“I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator.”

Mr Obama defended his decision not to directly involve US forces in what he called an “increasingly sectarian civil war”, but framed the conflict as a growing terrorism threat that must be confronted, rather than a humanitarian crisis.

“[I]n helping those who fight for the right of all Syrians to choose their own future, we also push back against the growing number of extremists who find safe-haven in the chaos,” he added.

Mr Obama did not address recent reports that he had decided to create an overt US military-run training programme for vetted members of the Free Syrian Army.

The plan, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, would allow for a much larger operation to train rebels than is currently being carried out covertly by the CIA, reportedly in Qatar. But even after a year of debate between supporters in the State Department and sceptical Pentagon officials, the programme appears unlikely to come online anytime soon.

Speaking after the address, a senior administration official said that it will work with Congress “in the coming weeks and months” on the legal authorities necessary for the defence secretary to authorise military assistance such as a training programme.

“We want to take the time necessary to make sure we get this right … and fold this into a broader strategy that supports our objectives inside Syria,” the official said.

Senior opposition figures, including the president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), Ahmed Jarba, and General Abdillilah Bashir, the commander of the FSA, visited Washington earlier this month to convince the administration and Congress that they are a necessary partner on the ground in the fight against Islamist extremism.

Those lobbying efforts paid off in the form of language overwhelmingly approved by the Senate armed services committee in its version of a defence spending bill that “authorises the secretary of defence to provide equipment, training, supplies, and defence services to assist vetted members of the Syrian opposition”, according to a summary of the draft legislation.

The official indicated that while the details of how exactly the bill can increase resources allocated to the rebels “needs coordination and dialogue”, there is an “emerging view in Congress that is supportive of providing that kind of authority to the US military”.

While these discussions between the executive and legislative branches of the US government could take months, the official emphasised that the US is continuing to provide resources to the rebels and that “coordination has improved with our partners in the Arab world, particularly in the Gulf”.

He did not hold up as an example of success the chemical weapons deal the US negotiated with Russia under the threat of air strikes that forced Syrian president Bashar Al Assad to give up his poison gas stockpiles.

Critics have said the deal only provided diplomatic cover for the Syrian army to proceed freely with their campaign that has killed tens of thousands of civilians.

Addressing the conflict in Afghanistan, Mr Obama declared that the “long season of war” that America has fought since 2001 is coming to an end. The speech came a day after he announced plans to keep 9,800 US troops in Afghanistan following this year’s drawdown.

But even as the end of combat operations in Afghanistan marks the drawing to a close of an era, the primary security threat faced by the US is an evolving, decentralised terrorist threat that must be met with a similarly evolving US response, Mr Obama said.

He laid out a targeted approach to combating terrorism as part of a foreign policy strategy that avoids both the overreach of massive military intervention and isolationism.

“I believe we must shift our counter-terrorism strategy … to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold,” he said.

The $5bn Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund “will allow us to train, build capacity and facilitate partner countries on the front lines”, from South Asia to the Sahel, including assistance on surveillance and military intelligence.. “We need a strategy that matches this diffuse threat; one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military thin, or stir up local resentments.”

Mr Obama’s speech was meant as a rebuke to critics in Washington and abroad who claim his administration’s foreign policy approach has only emboldened adversaries such as Russia and China, and undermined American credibility with close allies.

“We must broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law and — if just, necessary, and effective — multilateral military action,” Mr Obama said.

The US president said that “America must always lead on the world stage” but that the US public demands that the bar for military action must be higher, after over a decade of war and a crushing recession.

tkhan@thenational.ae