As the atrocities mount in Syria, President Obama is considering providing arms to the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad, even though he has been reluctant to do so in the past, according to a report in The New York Times today.
In a conflict that has thus far killed more than 70,000 Syrians, the world community is split on how to respond. Countries like Russia and Iran are supporting Syria’s dictatorial Assad with weapons and financial support, while Arab nations in the Middle East have been providing support to al Qaida-affiliated rebels.
The U.S. has so far funneled $50 million of nonlethal assistance to the Syrian rebels, including satellite telephones, radios, broadcasting equipment, computers, survival equipment and related training, according to The New York Times.
But while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others in the White House have advocated sending weapons to the Syrian rebels, the president remains wary of the possibility that they may one day end up in the hands of U.S. enemies. His position is supported by Vice President Joe Biden and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. It’s not clear where the new secretary of state, former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, stands on the issue.
Meanwhile, a report by a U.N.-commissioned panel said the situation in war-ravaged Syria “is deteriorating rapidly,” and both sides have committed crimes against humanity.
“The destructive dynamics of the civil war not only have an impact on the civilian population, but are also tearing apart the country’s complex social fabric, jeopardizing future generations and undermining peace and security in the entire region,” the report said.
The report, which covers a six-month period up to mid-January, accused both sides of killing civilians and combatants. It states that the Assad government has committed murder, torture, rape, “enforced disappearances” and a “disturbing pattern” of aerial bombardments, targeting hospitals, bakeries and bread lines. The rebels are accused of murder, torture and hostage-taking, among other crimes, and of aiming car bombs and other explosives at non-military targets.
The report, prepared by the panel headed by Brazilian lawyer Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, pointed out that though both sides have committed atrocities, the scale of abuses by government forces dwarfed those attributed to the opposition.
Next month, according to a story in the Los Angeles Times, the panel will present the U.N. high commissioner of human rights with a confidential list of individuals and units believed responsible for crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations, which could lead to prosecution in the International Criminal Court.
In addition to the more than 70,000 people estimated to have died in the two-year Syrian conflict, more than 1 million Syrians are believed to have fled the country and an additional 2.5 million are refugees, having been forced from their homes.
Paul Salem, who runs the Middle East office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that even if Assad is overthrown by rebels, “Syria is in the process not of transitioning, but disintegrating.”
“The odds are very high that for better or worse, armed men will determine Syria’s course for the foreseeable future,” Frederic C. Hof, a former senior State Department official and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told The New York Times. “For the U.S. not to have close, supportive relationships with armed elements, carefully vetted, is very risky.”