BEIRUT — Syria’s rebels on Friday criticized the U.S. decision to offer small-scale military assistance as late and inadequate, saying they will need heavy weapons to counter the growing challenge posed by a reinvigorated Syrian army that is already receiving foreign help.
The real significance of the policy shift may lie in the signal it sends to the increasingly polarized region that the United States does not intend to remain on the sidelines and allow Syrian President Bashar Assad to prevail over the outgunned rebels.
That the United States is committing itself militarily to the rebels when Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement are escalating their support for Assad draws the United States inexorably into what is rapidly becoming a global proxy war for control of Syria, analysts said.
“The general direction of travel is toward greater Western involvement,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
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The Obama administration Thursday said the United States will for the first time send direct military assistance to the Syrian rebels, after the conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that the Syrian government had used small quantities of chemical weapons in its efforts to defeat the armed rebellion.
It also followed months of battlefield setbacks for those seeking Assad’s ouster, culminating last week in the loss of the strategic western town of Qusair near Lebanon’s border to a force in which Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement played a leading role.
Government forces Friday launched their heaviest attack in months against rebel-held areas in the divided northern city of Aleppo, the country’s commercial capital, pounding rebel positions with artillery and attempting to break through rebel lines in the front-line neighborhood of Sakhour.
The push fell short of the full-scale offensive to retake the city that has been widely touted as imminent.
Rebel leaders say they are confident they can withstand a government assault in the north, where the government’s supply lines are stretched and the rebels have access to the Turkish border, a key source of weapons supplies, whether from the black market or the Arab Gulf countries that have been supporting them.
It would also be one of the likely routes for any U.S. weapons supplies.
“On the Aleppo front, we are the most powerful and we are putting the regime and Hezbollah under pressure,” said Col. Abdul Jabbar Akaidi, head of the military council in Aleppo, who returned to the city Thursday from Qusair after the rebel rout.
But the loss of Qusair and the threat of a government assault in Aleppo illustrated a growing sense of desperation among the rebels that they are being forced onto the defensive after nearly a year of battlefield gains that saw them seize control of large swaths of territory in the north and east of the country.
Instead, the government is steadily gaining ground in the crucial battle for control of the suburbs ringing Damascus and is routing the rebels in the central province of Homs.
Louay al Mokdad, political and media coordinator for the umbrella Free Syrian Army, said he welcomed the Obama administration decision, but called it a “late step.”
“If they send small arms, how can small arms make a difference?” he asked. “They should help us with real weapons, anti-tank and anti-aircraft, and with armored vehicles, training and a no-fly zone.”
U.S. officials are expected to meet with Gen. Salim Idriss, head of the rebel Supreme Military Council, in the next two days to discuss details of military assistance that the U.S. will provide. The administration has not specified what the assistance may entail.
U.S. officials have ruled out sending ground troops and on Friday played down the likelihood of a no-fly zone in Syria, calling it “difficult” and “dangerous.”
But a military exercise under way in Jordan points to a growing level of preparedness by the United States and its allies for a wide range of options.
About 5,000 U.S. troops are among 8,000 from 19 nations taking part in the Eager Lion exercise, which also includes F-16 and F-18 fighter jets and a battery of Patriot missiles that will remain behind in Jordan after the drill concludes next week.