After Setbacks In Battle, Syrian Rebels Seek Victories In D.C.
Originally published on Fri May 9, 2014 8:45 pm
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. The war in Syria took a turn this week on two fronts. Inside Syria, rebel fighters abandoned their positions in the city of Homs, once the heart of the revolution. The negotiated withdrawal is widely seen as a major setback for the rebels, and a victory for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. And here in Washington, opposition leaders are lobbying the Obama administration and Congress. They're asking for more U.S. weapons and trainers. NPR's Tom Bowman joins us now from the Pentagon to talk about this. And, Tom, let's start with the developments in Syria itself. How significant is the withdrawal by rebel forces from Homs?
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Melissa, it is pretty significant, and so far the Assad regime is in a better position. The rebels and the Syrian government reached a deal overseen by the U.N. to evacuate the old city section of Homs. So, we're talking about 1,000 fighters or so, some civilians who got out, and they were basically being starved. Now, this is where the revolution began, so it's significant and symbolic as well. But the rebels still have control of certain portions of the country in the south and the north. The regime, meanwhile, is controlling cities and the coastline. But there's no question now that the rebels are weaker.
BLOCK: Now, I mentioned that opposition leaders are lobbying here in Washington, trying to reverse the situation on the battlefield with political means. Who are they seeing and what are they asking for?
BOWMAN: Well, first of all, their delegation is being led by the rebel political leader, Ahmad al-Jabra. He's joined by his key military officers. And they're meeting with the State Department, CIA, members of Congress. And the visit continues into next week with a meeting with National Security adviser Susan Rice at the White House. And we're hearing the president is expected to drop by that meeting. And, Melissa, they're really looking at two things here: they want more training from the U.S. and also heavier weapons: anti-aircraft missiles in particular. And the reason they need those weapons is because one of the greatest threats is this: the Assad regime is using helicopters to drop barrel bombs. And these are barrels filled with explosives and nails. And the rebels want to be able to shoot down these helicopters.
BLOCK: But would that really make a difference this far into the war and with the setbacks that we've talked about?
BOWMAN: Well, I mean, that's the key question. Rebel leaders think it will make a difference but some military officers and intelligence officials I talked with say that, listen, even if they do get this weaponry, it's too little too late. Now, it was two years ago the Defense Department, State Department, Hillary Clinton at the time at State Department and then CIA Director David Petraeus all said arm and train the rebels but the White House said no. But the whole point is this: even if they do get all the weapons is to make it so the rebels do not win militarily necessarily, but that it pressures the Assad regime to reach a political settlement.
BLOCK: Well, given that the White House has said no up 'til now, how likely is it that the Obama administration will give these opposition forces what they want?
BOWMAN: Well, first of all, they are giving them more weapons. There's a CIA covert program providing anti-armor weapons and training to the rebels, who have been screened by the U.S., by the way. And now this new debate going on is over anti-aircraft missiles. Several key officials are pushing this, including Secretary of State John Kerry, but others disagree or really aren't convinced by this year. And the fear is this: that these weapons could fall into the wrong hands - basically al-Qaida and its affiliates, who are growing in strength, and that's a whole other concern here. And that these weapons could be used to take down a commercial aircraft, could slip across the border. And part of this debate now is can you track these weapons if you give them to the opposition. And you can't do it by biometrics. You basically take someone's fingerprint and, you know, they could be an authorized user and a mechanism can unlock that weapon, but this debate is still going on.
BLOCK: OK. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks so much.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.