Syrian rebels and their Persian Gulf backers, who were counting on U.S. missiles to spur a battlefield breakthrough, warned of a missed opportunity as President Barack Obama put the attack on hold.
The opposition is “upset” with the U.S. decision, Samir Nashar, a member of Syria’s National Coalition, said in a phone interview today. He said President Bashar al-Assad’s military is “fragile” and an attack would “have a significant impact,” though he’s still hopeful of a U.S. intervention because “Obama is serious, even if he has made mistakes.”
The Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes nations that have helped organize and arm the rebel Free Syrian Army, demanded immediate international action against Assad at a summit last night. The call came hours before Obama said no armed strike by the U.S. is imminent and he’ll pursue a Russian initiative for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons to international control.
Obama’s turnaround leaves rebel groups facing a return to the previous situation on the battlefield, where they were on the retreat before the alleged chemical attack of Aug. 21 raised the possibility of international intervention in the 2 1/2-year civil war. For their Gulf supporters, speeding the flow of money and arms to the rebels is a likelier option than using force themselves.
‘Wobbly and Indecisive’
“An Arab military strike has never been considered,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center. “They may step up support for the rebels, yes, but military operations, no.” He said that Gulf leaders see Obama’s administration as “wobbly and indecisive.”
Obama has been seeking lawmakers’ approval to attack Assad on the grounds his government used chemical weapons against its own people, an allegation supported by the Syrian rebels and their Gulf allies. In a televised speech, Obama said that the initiative by Russia, a decades-old ally of the Assad family, “has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force.”
Assad and his supporters denied responsibility for the chemical attack and remained defiant under the threat of attack, warning of reprisals.
The retreat from armed intervention will hurt the opposition’s strategy, troop morale and its ability to make gains in the struggle against Assad, said Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group in London.
The news brought relief to many Syrians who had worried that a U.S. attack would open up government defenses around the capital that the rebels would exploit. Many had prepared shelters out of fear of street fighting, while some residents said they had made plans to flee for Lebanon, already home to about 1.2 million Syrians displaced by the war.
Syrian lawmaker Fayez Sayegh said by phone from Damascus yesterday that the Russian-brokered plan might be the first step toward a proposed conference in Geneva to end the conflict.
“The mood is lighter and more relaxed” as the U.S. attack receded, Sayegh said. “This is a triumph for Syrian and Russian diplomacy. This could be the beginning of a solution to the crisis.”
The Syrian pound strengthened to 210 to the dollar yesterday on the black market from 230 on Sept. 9, according to a money changer in Beirut who asked not to be identified. The official rate was little changed at 130 pounds.
Assad’s opponents, who had been calling for Obama to escalate plans for a military intervention, voiced concerns about the shift toward diplomacy. Less than two weeks ago, Colonel Qassem Saadeddine, a member of the FSA’s high command, and his colleagues were making plans to push into government-held areas as soon as the U.S. strike began.
“We are very dismayed because this proposal will come at the expense of Syrian blood,” Saadeddine said by telephone yesterday as the Russian proposal gained momentum.
Syria’s National Coalition, the main political opposition, said the Russian plan “does not address the issue of accountability for crimes against innocents” and “aims to stall for more time, which will allow the regime to cause more death and destruction.”
The GCC, six monarchies led by Saudi Arabia, called in a statement late yesterday for the international community to take “immediate action to protect the Syrian people and help them defend themselves.”
The GCC wants “to stop the bloodshed, to support any international action, to protect the people of Syria, to hold the regime accountable for the massacre and the killings,” Abdel Latif al-Zayyani, secretary-general of the GCC, said at a conference in Dubai today. “The chemicals are only part of the overall picture.”
Such comments highlight a key difference between the U.S. and its Gulf allies, said Ghanem Nuseibeh, the London-based founder of Cornerstone Global Associates.
“The Americans wanted to act because of the chemical weapons, whereas the GCC wanted a strike because of Assad in general,” he said. “It’s a completely different way of looking at things.”
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