In a private meeting with Syrian opposition leaders, Secretary of State John Kerry said he believed the international community “wasted a year” by not working together to help topple strongman Bashar al-Assad.
The various countries trying to help the Free Syrian Army had failed to coordinate their efforts effectively for a long time, Kerry said inside the private meeting last Thursday with Syrian Opposition Coalition president Ahmad Jarba, according to three participants in the meeting. And that lack of coordination had dramatically set back the drive to stop Assad’s rampage and counter the growing terrorism threat.
All three participants in the meeting requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the gathering, which was held at the State Department in Washington, D.C. Several State Department officials, at least one National Security Council staffer, and several representatives of the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Supreme Military Council were in attendance.
The participants said Kerry made the remark in the context of a discussion about renewed efforts to coordinate the flow of both aid and weapons to the Syrian rebels. Earlier this year, the intelligence chiefs of several Arab countries came to Washington to work on concentrating the flow of aid away from more extremist elements—and toward moderate rebels such as the FSA. The group is fighting hard-liners such as the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) all over northern Syria.
Days after that meeting, the FSA’s Supreme Military Council appointed a new leader, Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir. And in recent weeks, the rebels have begun to receive and use American-made anti-tank missiles, part of a “pilot program” to test the Supreme Military Council’s ability to handle advanced weapons responsibly and prevent their proliferation to extremist groups.
Bashir sat down for an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast on Sunday. The main purpose of the Syrian Opposition Coalition delegation’s trip to Washington, he said, was to ask for anti-aircraft weapons to protect Syrian civilians from regime air strikes, which lately have included barrel bombs and chlorine gas attacks on civilian targets. Bashir also asked the United States to take the lead on the international effort to provide aid and arms to the Syrian Opposition Civilian and military leadership.
Inside the meeting, Kerry told the Syrian opposition leaders that he understood their desire for more advanced arms. But he did not make any specific commitments for new American aid. He told the Syrian leaders the United States had been doing its best to help the Syria people and would continue to do so.
“Secretary Kerry was very emotional and sympathetic to the Syrian cause, and he supports the Syrian revolution and the Syrian people,” Bashir said. “We have so much hope that there will be changes in the policy.”
It’s been well reported that Kerry has been frustrated with the Obama administration’s Syria policy for a long time and has been advocating internally for more robust aid to the rebels, only to be stymied repeatedly by the White House.
Bashir acknowledged that the United States has been heavily involved in the recent increase of advanced arms to parts of the Free Syrian Army. He argued that the FSA’s handling of the TOW anti-tank missiles should give the American government enough confidence to start providing anti-aircraft weapons, as well.
“The FSA has been dealing very well with the TOW missiles. Under our protection, people are trained to use them, and it is with the collaboration and under the supervision of the United States,” Bashir said. “The main purpose for our visit is to get anti-aircraft weapons to protect innocent civilians inside Syria, and we are hoping the United States is going to help us push aside Assad’s air force.”
Jarba, the Syrian Opposition Coalition president, told The Wall Street Journal on Sunday that he will ask Pentagon and White House officials directly for anti-aircraft weapons early this week. President Obama is expected to “drop by” Jarba’s White House meeting. Jarba is promising strict safeguards to ensure the weapons are used only by trained rebel officers and won’t fall into extremist hands.
Bashir said that if the U.S. takes the lead, coordinates all the lethal aid between countries helping Syria, and puts it under the umbrella of the Supreme Military Council, that could give the U.S. government more confidence that any weapons provided to the rebels would be handled responsibly. The council has agreed to establish two central coordination units inside Syria, one in the south and one in the north, Bashir said, but it does not yet have control over the arms flows.
“We want to collaborate our efforts with all of our allies, to have one directed effort to help Syria, one support channel to the SMC. That needs to be led by the United States,” he said.
The Free Syrian Army is now fighting on two fronts, against the regime and against ISIS. The Syrian Opposition Coalition has compiled extensive evidence that the regime and ISIS are cooperating to fight against the FSA, by aiding each other both on and off the battlefield. The New York Times has reported that ISIS is selling oil directly to the regime, helping fuel Assad’s war machine while filling its own coffers.
“We consider ISIS an arm of the Syrian regime,” said Bashir. “We ask the United States to give us sophisticated weaponry or at least to give other allies the green light to give us sophisticated weaponry, because that has not been the case thus far. If the United States doesn’t help us with sophisticated weaponry, Syria is going to be dominated by al Qaeda, and that is going to be a threat to the entire world.”
In Washington, the debate has focused on whether to help establish a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, using American military force to protect Syrian civilians in danger. Some lawmakers also have called for U.S. strikes on Assad’s air force. Bashir said anti-aircraft weapons would make those two controversial options unnecessary.
“If you provide us with anti-aircraft missiles, there’s no need for a no-fly zone,” he said. “We are not asking for you to send American men and women to fight in Syria.”
Overall, the Syrian Opposition Coalition is asking all the American leaders it meets with in Washington for the United States to do more, both diplomatically and militarily, to help turn the tide of the war back in favor of the revolution.
“There’s a Syrian saying that you can’t hide the sun with a screen, and you can’t hide the fact that the United States is the one that can decide when this war ends, and we hope that the United States will put an end to this,” he said.