Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Russian arms used in slaughter of civilians in Syria

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TEL AVIV -- What to do about Syria? The double veto of Russia and China in the Security Council last week has confronted all concerned with a new reality -- a regional Sunni-led insurgency, supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, struggling against a Shiite-Alawite Syrian minority supported by Russia and Iran.

According to intelligence available in Israel, Russia supplied the Syrian army with the artillery shells for the five-day shelling of rebel positions in the city of Homs. For Russia, the idea that Bashar Assad must go is not even on the table. Vitaly Churkin, Russian ambassador to the UN, said the Syrian opposition must start a dialogue with Bashar Assad's regime.

For now, at least, such an option is not being considered. On the contrary, in their meeting in Cairo on Sunday, Arab foreign ministers suspended the activities of the Arab League's monitors in Syria and called for the creation of a joint Arab-UN peacekeeping mission in Damascus.

Both Syria and Russia rejected the proposal out of hand.

The Arab League stopped short of recognizing the opposition Syrian National Council as the legitimate representative of Syria.

One reason for this miserable situation is the split between the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) led by Col. Riad al-Assad and headquartered in Turkey.

The FSA is composed of battalion-size units, it is lightly armed, suffers from a shortage of weapons and lacks a cohesive command and control system. Colonel Riad al-Assad totally ignores the civilian leadership. Last week, however, the military wing suffered a real setback. Gen. Mustafa Ahmad al-Sheikh became the highest rebel officer to defect from the Syrian army.

He came to Turkey together with 350 of his supporters. Being the most senior army officer, he demanded that he become the head of the Free Syrian Army. Col. Riad al-Assad refused to surrender the command. He argued that the FSA needs weapons and ammunition, not generals.

Indeed, individuals in the U.S. Congress are seeking ways to supply the Free Syrian Army with the weapons that it needs. Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain have both called for some kind of military support.

The Obama administration has so far rejected the idea. It fears Russian counter-measures. Everyone in Washington understands that Russia would not allow a repetition of NATO's activity in Libya. Furthermore, the Syrian army is five times the size of the Libyan army, is better trained and much better equipped.

Qatar is the only Arab country known to supply the Syrian rebels with arms and ammunition, especially Milan anti-tank rockets.

These are, however, small quantities that are being smuggled into Syria via Lebanon and do not influence the military situation on the ground. This subject will be the main topic of discussion by a "Free Syria" consultation, to be held in Tunis on Feb. 24.

Needless to say that in such a delicate situation, Israel is following very closely developments in the region. It tracks, in particular, the return of Russian intelligence operatives to Damascus. Israel has noticed the presence of these Russian intelligence operatives on several occasions. According to the French daily Le Figaro, the chief of Russian foreign intelligence, Gen. Mikhail Fradkov, obtained from Bashar Assad permission to reopen a Russian listening station on Mount Qassioun, near Damascus. If true, this was a nice price for last week's Russian veto in the Security Council.

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press Middle East correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 14, 2012 A11

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.

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