Bloomberg News

Syria Rebels Urge Defections as Obama Rallies Support

September 02, 2013

Syria Rebels Urge Defections as Obama Rallies Support for Strike

Syrian rebels in the eastern town of Deir Ezzor, Syria, on Aug. 17, 2013. Photographer: Abo Shuja/AFP via Getty Images

Syrian rebels urged President Bashar al-Assad’s officers to defect, seeking to swing momentum in the country’s civil war during a lull created by President Barack Obama’s decision to consult Congress on military strikes.

As Obama’s top aides embarked on a campaign to win support for an attack on Syria, a key group fighting to topple Assad said it’s already seeing benefits, including a faster flow of arms, because of the international outrage at his alleged use of chemical weapons. Meanwhile Russia reiterated its skepticism about what the U.S. says is the evidence against Assad, while Obama’s Arab allies stopped short of endorsing unilateral U.S. action. Oil extended declines.

Syrian officers who abandon Assad will get guarantees that “we will protect them and their families,” Mohammed Almustafa, media coordinator for the Free Syrian Army’s leadership, said by phone today from an undisclosed location on the Syria-Turkey border. He said there’s been a surge in defections, and a parallel increase in weapons supplies for the rebels in the past two weeks, with Turkey and “some Arab countries” being especially supportive. The claims couldn’t be verified.

The Syrian rebels have failed to extend initial gains in recent months, when Assad’s forces have been in the ascendant. The deadlock in the 2 1/2-year civil war, whose death toll exceeds 100,000 according to United Nations estimates, has opened divisions among western nations as to the purpose of any military intervention.

Hitler, Saddam

Those splits are visible in Washington, where Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday kicked off a campaign to rally support for punitive action against Assad that’s set to continue until at least Sept. 9 when Congress reconvenes.

Kerry invoked hair and blood samples that he said prove Assad’s forces were behind the attack with sarin nerve gas, which the Syrian government denies. Kerry listed the Syrian alongside Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein as leaders that have used chemical weapons, and said failure to punish him would be a dereliction of the U.S.’s duty to its friends in the region and to the Syrian people.

“I can’t contemplate that the Congress would turn its back on all of that responsibility,” Kerry said. Syria’s government denies using the weapons.

Some U.S. legislators, such as Arizona Senator John McCain, have pushed for a more aggressive involvement in the Syrian civil war, aimed at removing Assad, and say limited strikes to punish the use of chemical weapons, of the kind Obama and Kerry are advocating, won’t achieve anything.

‘American Interests’

Others are against all intervention. “I don‘t see American interests involved on either side of this Syrian war,” Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a potential contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, said yesterday.

Among U.S. allies, Turkey has backed a bigger operation aimed at removing Assad. “Hitting local targets without seeking an ultimate resolution” would only worsen the conditions in Syria, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said late yesterday.

It’s not clear what role Turkey, a NATO member, or other countries might play in a U.S. attack. French President Francois Hollande, who has signaled support, is being pressed by the opposition to give French lawmakers a say in the decision, as Obama and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron have done.

For Cameron, the outcome was a defeat in Parliament that led him to rule out British involvement. Senior U.K. ministers said today they won’t go back to the legislature for a second vote.

Russia Skeptical

The Arab League, made up mostly of nations that have joined the U.S. in backing the rebels in Syria, late yesterday called on the United Nations to live up to its responsibility under international law to protect Syrian civilians, without explicitly endorsing U.S. military strikes.

Russia, Assad’s ally, remains unconvinced by the evidence that Obama’s government has supplied as proof of Assad’s involvement in the chemical attack, Interfax reported today, citing Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Russia and China, which also opposes military action in Syria, have a veto in the UN security council, meaning any U.S.- led action in Syria is unlikely to be endorsed by the 15-member body. Assad’s government wrote to the council urging it to block the “absurd use of force,” state news agency SANA reported.

Oil declined for a third day as Obama’s decision to consult Congress eased concern about an immediate attack in a region that supplies about a third of the world’s crude. West Texas Intermediate crude for October delivery fell 0.5 percent at 12:50 p.m. in London.

To contact the reporters on this story: Joe Sobczyk in Washington at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net; Dana El Baltaji in Dubai at delbaltaji@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net


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