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U.S. has a good case for arming the rebels in Syria

Jun 20, 2013 - The Chicago Tribune

The Syrian rebels battling President Bashar Assad's forces are on the ropes. They've lost one strategic city and may be on the brink of losing a stronghold in Aleppo to government forces, fortified by Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters.

Assad's enabler-in-chief, Russian President Vladimir Putin, warns the U.S. and its allies against helping the rebels even as he props up the Syrian strongman with an advanced anti-aircraft missile system and Moscow's veto power in the U.N. Security Council.

Russia, Iran and Hezbollah have chosen Assad's side and put muscle behind it. Assad, whose grip on power once seemed tenuous, looks stronger than ever. In an online interview published Monday, a belligerent Assad warned the West to back off or else "Europe's backyard will become terrorist and Europe will pay the price."

Your move, Washington.

Last week, the White House -- saying that Assad had crossed a "red line" in using chemical weapons -- announced a move that we've long supported: The United States will provide lethal arms to carefully screened rebels. This is crucial. The insurgents need those arms to topple Assad, or at least drive him to the negotiating table.

The White House won't answer crucial questions about what arms will be provided to the rebels or when. But some lethal weaponry already is flowing: On Monday, Reuters reported that Saudi Arabia had for the first time equipped rebels with shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. The Saudis also reportedly sent anti-tank missiles. For months, Syrian insurgent commanders have appealed to the U.S. and its allies for those arms. The Saudis likely wouldn't send those arms without at least tacit approval from Washington.

And there's likely more to come: A few weeks ago, the EU lifted its arms embargo against the rebels, clearing the way for Britain and France to send advanced weaponry.

The United States has moved anti-aircraft missile batteries and warplanes to Jordan in recent weeks for a military exercise, and now it plans to keep them there. That is viewed -- rightly -- in Moscow as a Western threat to set up a no-fly zone in part of Syria, to protect refugees and rebel fighters.

President Barack Obama has been skittish about drawing the U.S. into this bloody civil war. Americans aren't spoiling to put troops into another major ground battle in the Middle East. There will naturally be concern about military involvement creeping from arms supplies toward boots on the ground.

This is the rebels' war to fight, but the U.S. and its allies can assist with materiel. The stakes in Syria are enormous. The terrorists of Hezbollah are fighting to keep their Shiite allies in Damascus. The Iranians are fighting to keep a vital strategic ally in place to funnel arms and money to terrorists throughout the region. The Russians have a major trading partner in Assad, and a deep-pocketed customer for Russian arms. Keeping Assad in power plays to Russia's vanity that it is still a global superpower that rivals the United States.

There is a significant humanitarian concern -- some 90,000 people have died in the fighting. The West says Assad has proved his willingness to use chemical weapons. The stability of America's allies in Turkey and Jordan, where tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled, is at risk. So is the security of Israel, which shares an increasingly tense border with Syria. U.S. officials seek to avoid a spillover of the conflict into Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey.

The United States and Russia have made moves toward arranging a Syrian peace conference. That hasn't happened -- and probably won't happen -- until both sides find more advantage in a compromise than in continuing the fight.

A civil war that ends with Assad triumphant and still in power would be a monumental victory for Iran. And Russia. And Hezbollah. The rebels still have a say in that, and they can use some help.

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