The Free Syrian Army want more weapons for their final push against Assad (Narciso Contreras)
EVERY day, diplomats from the US State Department sit in an office in Foggy Bottom, Washington, chatting for hours on Skype. On their headphones, and sometimes on their computer screens, are rebel commanders 6,000 miles away on the battlefields of Syria.
“It’s a whole new way of following a war,” said a senior diplomat. “We’ve never had that kind of real-time upfront communication.”
Some of the Skypers, including retired CIA agents, find the calls troubling. They can often hear firing or mortars, and have formed relationships with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders who in quieter moments talk of their families and dreams for the future.
“We are trying to understand how [the commanders] see the situation,” said Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman. “We are encouraging them to reject extremism. We are encouraging them to support the spirit and the letter of the Geneva conventions with regard to prisoners, human rights, etc. So there are a number of things to talk to them about.”
Mostly the rebels want to talk weapons — they want more for a final push against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Since spring they have been receiving arms from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey with apparent American approval. Some are coming through Lebanon from Libya. They are said to include some shoulder-launched missiles capable of bringing down warplanes.
Earlier this year President Barack Obama signed a “finding”, or presidential directive, authorising clandestine support from the CIA.
Advisers within Syria have already seen the rebels replace hit-and-run tactics with more organised attacks over the past month. This has resulted in them taking more ground and disrupting regime supply lines.
After a week of meetings, the administration has agreed to a covert programme of weapons supplies and military advisers that could tilt the balance towards the rebels.
The US’s biggest concern is what happens after the war in a country with a complicated make-up of religious groups and a pivotal position in the region as Iran’s main ally and a neighbour to Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and Israel.
The priority is what will happen to Syria’s chemical weapons, believed to be one of the world’s largest stockpiles, and how to reduce the threat of them ending up in the hands of radical groups such as al-Qaeda and Hezbollah.
With Assad refusing entreaties to go into exile, fears are being expressed that he may use chemical weapons in a desperate attempt to prevent the rebels from taking the capital.
Last week Obama, Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, and Leon Panetta, the defence secretary, all warned Assad that their use would cross “a red line” and force them to react — although they have not said how. Last week, for the first time, officials talked openly not only of arming rebels but even military action.
“There’s been a tidal shift here to where military force will be used to prevent those chemical weapons from ever seeing the light of day,” said Lindsey Graham, an influential Republican senator.
Syria’s chemical weapons inventory is believed to include mustard gas and the potent nerve agents sarin and VX. According to Bob Baer, a former CIA agent, “one warhead of sarin, if loaded in a 122mm shell and dropped on a densely populated area such as Aleppo or Homs, can kill 18,000 people”.
NBC news has reported that the Syrians are loading chemical weapons onto warheads, but intelligence officials admit that they do not know what the movements of trucks in and out of weapons sites signify.
“The movement could imply the regime is weaponising the chemicals or moving them to more secure places,” said one.
Washington’s comments could be a signal to Syria’s allies, such as Russia, of how seriously the US takes the situation or that it is preparing the public for greater military involvement.
US officials admit that trying to dispose of chemical weapons while Assad is still in power would be almost impossible. Syria has five or six main sites and about 40 others. There are as many as 100 places to which weapons may have been moved, mostly in the western half of the country.
“It’s like a zugzwang position in chess, where every move is a bad one,” said one official.
Publicly, Syrian officials insist the Assad regime would never use chemical weapons against its people. Faisal Mekdad, the deputy foreign minister, said its enemies were fabricating the chemical-weapons scare to create a “pretext” for intervention.
Western intelligence services have been making extensive efforts to contact Syrian scientists involved in the weapons programme to ensure they co-operate once Assad falls.
Some radical groups are already warning that they are prepared to go to extremes.
A video posted on YouTube and purporting to come from a militant Islamic group shows a man in a lab coat mixing chemicals in a beaker in a glass tank containing two rabbits. A plume of gas can be seen. After a minute the rabbits begin to convulse and die. “You saw what happened?” demands the man, addressing Assad’s religious sect. “This will be your fate, you infidel Alawites, to die like these rabbits, one minute only after you inhale the gas.”
The Pentagon has prepared contingency plans to send in airborne and ground troops to try to secure the weapons facilities. They estimate 75,000 troops would be needed, headed by Joint Special Operations Command, with further forces from the 82nd Airborne Division, which are on 18 hours standby for deployment.
The US would want this to be a multinational force, including Britain and possibly France, Jordan and Qatar. British forces have expertise in disarming chemical weapons.
But after Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no appetite in the US for another war, and senior generals have counselled against it. “I can already see the headlines,” said one US general. “Mostly Christian army invades another Muslim country.”
A senior British officer insisted that no action is imminent. But he said: “The question is at what point does the unknown risk in not doing something outweigh the known risk in doing something?”