Arming the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime remains the only option for achieving a negotiated settlement in the war-torn country despite fears that the weapons could fall into the hands of terrorist groups, one senator argued Wednesday after his recent trip to the region.
Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.) advocated for supporting the Syrian rebels with anti-tank weapons and targeted missile strikes and spoke about the conditions in neighboring Jordan and Turkey at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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Rebel groups have requested the aid in response to a new offensive by Assad’s forces on rebel strongholds in central Syria backed by the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.
Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed concern about the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees that have cascaded into bordering countries and sparked a humanitarian crisis.
Meanwhile, radical Sunni Islamist groups such as the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front continue to pour in to topple Assad, who belongs to the Alawite sect of Shia Islam, Levin added.
"It is not only important that Assad goes, but that him leaving does not create a vacuum that allows sectarian divisions between Sunnis and Shias to spread and safe havens for al Qaeda to develop," he said.
Critics have questioned Levin’s and others’ assurances that the arms could be directly funneled to the less radical rebel groups, noting that the country has become a breeding ground for thousands of jihadists. Recent reports suggest that the Syrian opposition groups have yet to receive any military aid from the United States due to concerns from House and Senate intelligence committees about the transfer of the weapons.
Levin could not confirm whether arms had reached the rebel groups but said a more concrete policy from the Obama administration could assuage the doubts of other lawmakers.
"Many of my colleagues do not see a plan, and that’s why I emphasize the need for it," he said.
Levin outlined a plan in which the United States would provide some heavier weaponry to the rebels favoring a democratic outcome in Syria and launch targeted strikes against Assad’s airfields, planes, and artillery. He stopped short of supporting the removal of Assad’s air defense system, which would likely require U.S. planes in Syrian airspace.
A political settlement to depose Assad cannot be reached unless he faces defeat from a bolstered opposition, Levin said. He added that once Assad falls, an inclusive constitution drafting process would be the only method to prevent a situation like Iraq where sectarian tensions boil over into another civil war.
"It is inconsistent with our national interest and moral conscience to watch more massacres go unchallenged," he said. "Doing nothing, for me, is not an acceptable option in these circumstances."