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US tells Iraq to stop allowing Iran supply flights to Syria over its airspace while it pushes ahead with arming rebels

It is no secret that the CIA has been helping the rebels in Syria.  Initially, the US gave the green light to Saudi Arabia and Qatar to send aid and military supplies to the rebels, but two years on and frustration growing, the US is becoming more aggressive.  As the US increases its support for the rebels, it is now asking Iraq to stop allowing Iranian supply planes to fly over Iraq in an attempt to halt Iran’s aid to Assad’s regime.  Will Iraq comply?  No.

Here are two reports, both from the New York Times:

  

Secretary of State John Kerry told Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, on Sunday that Iraq must take steps to stop Iran from shipping arms to Syria through Iraqi airspace. But an hour and 40 minutes of discussions here, which Mr. Kerry said were sometimes “spirited,” failed to yield a breakthrough on the issue.

As Mr. Kerry prepared to leave Iraq afterward, he warned that the Iranian flights were sustaining the government of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and were undermining Iraq’s standing with American lawmakers.

“Anything that supports President Assad is problematic,” Mr. Kerry said at a news conference here, where he voiced hope that progress might be made in resolving the issue.

The Iranian flights, which are vitally important for Mr. Assad’s forces, represent a major challenge for American strategy concerning Syria. Mr. Kerry has repeatedly said that the Obama administration wants to change Mr. Assad’s “calculation” that he can prevail, and persuade him to relinquish power and agree to a political transition.

Whether that will sway Mr. Maliki is unclear. Iran has an enormous stake in Syria: it is Iran’s staunchest Arab ally and a conduit for supporting Hezbollah, the Lebanese Islamist movement. Iraq, too, has a lot at stake there. The prospect of a rebel victory in Syria and the rise of a Sunni-led government, Mr. Maliki fears, might embolden Sunnis in Iraq. So his Shiite-dominated government has increasingly sided with Mr. Assad as well.

American promises to help shape a stable democracy in Syria have been met with skepticism by some Iraqi officials. In an interview late in 2012, Sheikh Humam Hamoudi, the chairman of the Iraqi Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, recalled a visit in September from A. Elizabeth Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. “What she said was that they would educate the Syrians on how to be a democracy,” Mr. Hamoudi said, adding with a hint of sarcasm, “just like what happened in Iraq.”

Read the full story from the New York Times.

  What is the US strategy for Syria?  Remove Assad and install whom?  Which rebel group?  The ones back by Saudi Arabia (a bit fanatical), ones backed by Qatar (more moderate, but definitely Sunni), ones backed by Turkey or smaller groups clamoring for attention?  Here’s another report from the New York Times:

  

With help from the C.I.A., Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters in recent months, expanding a secret airlift of arms and equipment for the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, according to air traffic data, interviews with officials in several countries and the accounts of rebel commanders.

The airlift, which began on a small scale in early 2012 and continued intermittently through last fall, expanded into a steady and much heavier flow late last year, the data shows. It has grown to include more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari military-style cargo planes landing at Esenboga Airport near Ankara, and, to a lesser degree, at other Turkish and Jordanian airports.

As it evolved, the airlift correlated with shifts in the war within Syria, as rebels drove Syria’s army from territory by the middle of last year. And even as the Obama administration has publicly refused to give more than “nonlethal” aid to the rebels, the involvement of the C.I.A. in the arms shipments — albeit mostly in a consultative role, American officials say — has shown that the United States is more willing to help its Arab allies support the lethal side of the civil war.

From offices at secret locations, American intelligence officers have helped the Arab governments shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia, and have vetted rebel commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive, according to American officials speaking on the condition of anonymity. The C.I.A. declined to comment on the shipments or its role in them.

Syrian opposition figures and some American lawmakers and officials have argued that Russian and Iranian arms shipments to support Mr. Assad’s government have made arming the rebels more necessary.

Although rebel commanders and the data indicate that Qatar and Saudi Arabia had been shipping military materials via Turkey to the opposition since early and late 2012, respectively, a major hurdle was removed late last fall after the Turkish government agreed to allow the pace of air shipments to accelerate, officials said.

Simultaneously, arms and equipment were being purchased by Saudi Arabia in Croatia and flown to Jordan on Jordanian cargo planes for rebels working in southern Syria and for re-transfer to Turkey for rebels groups operating from there, several officials said.

These multiple logistics streams throughout the winter formed what one former American official who was briefed on the program called “a cataract of weaponry.”

American officials, rebel commanders and a Turkish opposition politician have described the Arab roles as an open secret, but have also said the program is freighted with risk, including the possibility of drawing Turkey or Jordan actively into the war and of provoking military action by Iran.

Still, rebel commanders have criticized the shipments as insufficient, saying the quantities of weapons they receive are too small and the types too light to fight Mr. Assad’s military effectively. They also accused those distributing the weapons of being parsimonious or corrupt.

“The outside countries give us weapons and bullets little by little,” said Abdel Rahman Ayachi, a commander in Soquor al-Sham, an Islamist fighting group in northern Syria.

Two other commanders, Hassan Aboud of Soquor al-Sham and Abu Ayman of Ahrar al-Sham, another Islamist group, said that whoever was vetting which groups receive the weapons was doing an inadequate job.

“There are fake Free Syrian Army brigades claiming to be revolutionaries, and when they get the weapons they sell them in trade,” Mr. Aboud said.

The former American official noted that the size of the shipments and the degree of distributions are voluminous.

“People hear the amounts flowing in, and it is huge,” he said. “But they burn through a million rounds of ammo in two weeks.”

Qatar has denied providing any arms to the rebels. A Qatari official, who requested anonymity, said Qatar has shipped in only what he called nonlethal aid. He declined to answer further questions. It is not clear whether Qatar has purchased and supplied the arms alone or is also providing air transportation service for other donors. But American and other Western officials, and rebel commanders, have said Qatar has been an active arms supplier — so much so that the United States became concerned about some of the Islamist groups that Qatar has armed.

The Qatari flights aligned with the tide-turning military campaign by rebel forces in the northern province of Idlib, as their campaign of ambushes, roadside bombs and attacks on isolated outposts began driving Mr. Assad’s military and supporting militias from parts of the countryside.

The American government became involved, the former American official said, in part because there was a sense that other states would arm the rebels anyhow. The C.I.A. role in facilitating the shipments, he said, gave the United States a degree of influence over the process, including trying to steer weapons away from Islamist groups and persuading donors to withhold portable antiaircraft missiles that might be used in future terrorist attacks on civilian aircraft.

Read the full story from the New York Times.

 

Every country involved in Syria has an ulterior motive for helping one rebel group over another.  The US, however, might be creating a bigger problem down the road by supporting groups it has little knowledge on.  Saudi Arabia and Qatar are pouring a lot of money into building up their groups, who most likely will not be moderate, pro-democracy groups.  When Assad’s reign is over, who will lead Syria?  Peace is a long way off in Syria.  There are multiple rebel factions and multiple foreign entities looking to shape the new Syria.  A fall of the Assad regime is only the beginning of the conflict.