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Syrian Dilemma

Cross-Border Combatants And Fears Of Proxy War


Updated May 31, 2013

As the United States and Russia planned a second round of talks in Geneva, Switzerland, the first week of June 2013 to find some end to the Syrian civil war, the U.S. fired a verbal salvo at cross-border fighters inside Syria. All the while, fears continued to mount that the war, now in its third year, is threatening to rope in Lebanon, Iran, Israel, and -- by proxy -- Russia and the United States.

Rebel armies have been fighting forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad since spring 2011. The war has cost an estimated 80,000 lives and sent thousands more refugees fleeing into countries neighboring Syria.

Assad's legitimacy to hold power has been nullified by most western leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama. The United States and the European Union have backed the Syrian Opposition Council as the legitimate government of Syria.

Support For Rebels

The EU edged closer to okaying sale of weapons to Syrian rebels in late May 2013. The U.S. remained committed to contributing "non-lethal" aid, and Obama has made it clear that he has no intention of putting U.S. troops in Syria. Other options theoretically remain open.

Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) made a surprise visit to rebel groups in Syria May 28. McCain proposes that the U.S. needs to do more.

McCain said in an op-ed piece in Time on May 8 that "The U.S. does not have to act alone, put boots on the ground or destroy every Syrian air-defense system to make a difference. We could train and arm well-vetted Syrian opposition forces, as recommended last year by President Obama's national-security team. We could strike Assad's aircraft and Scud-missile launchers. We could destroy artillery and drive Assad's forces from their posts. We could station Patriot-missile batteries just outside Syria to create safe zones across the border."

But, on May 30 came charges that McCain had been photographed on his trip with a Syrian rebel who had been involved with the kidnapping of Lebanese Shi'ite pilgrims. McCain's office said the senator did not knowingly meet with kidnappers, if indeed the claim is correct. Regardless, the charge shows the difficulty of making alliances in Syria. One of the reasons the U.S. is hesitant to supply "lethal" aid to rebels is the difficulty in making sure weapons would end up in the right hands for the right purposes.

Fear Of Escalation

But some of McCain's suggestions, diplomats fear, might worsen the war.

Even as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian Foreign Secretary Sergey Lavrov on May 27 to plan further talks on Syria, tension mounted over Russian plans to sell missile defense systems to Syria. Kerry said the sale would "destabilize" the region; Russians maintained it was simply for defense.

Those missile systems have the potential of sucking the whole region into war. In theory, any such missile defense in Syria would be used against Turkish-based, U.S. supplied missiles (also only for defense), or perhaps Israeli jets trying to stop the flow of Syrian arms to Hezbollah groups in Lebanon. Israel did that very thing earlier in May; Israel and western officials suspect the existence of an arms pipeline from Iran to Syria to Hezbollah. Almost any scenario there could pull the U.S. off a purely diplomatic stance on Syria and to a more aggressive position.

Hezbollah Involvement

Just days after Hezbollah confirmed some of its members were fighting on Assad's side in Syria, the U.S. State Department condemned the militants' actions. Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said "we condemn in the strongest terms Hassan Nasrallah's recent declarations confirming Hezbollah's militants' . . . active role in the fighting in Qusayr and other parts of Syria. This is an unacceptable and extremely dangerous escalation. We demand that Hezbollah withdraw its fighters from Syria immediately. We remain deeply concerned about reports of multiple cross-border security incidents in recent days."

U.S. Commitment To Diplomacy

In the midst of all that, Kerry and the U.S. remain committed to a diplomatic resolution to the Syrian crisis. Thus, his and Lavrov's preparations for the second round of Geneva talks, known as Geneva II.

Kerry said the U.S. and Russia "are deeply committed and remain committed to trying to implement the Geneva I principles, which require a transitional government by mutual consent that has full executive authority in order to allow the people of Syria to decide the future of Syria. We are committed to this."

While and official date had not been set, Psaki said the U.S. planned to send Under Secretary Wendy Sherman and acting Assistant Secretary Beth Jones to Geneva II.


McCain, John. Op Ed. Time. May 8, 2013. Accessed May 29, 2013.

U.S. State Department. Kerry Remarks With Lavrov. May 27, 2013. Accessed May 29, 2013.

U.S. State Department. Daily Press Briefing, May 29, 2013. Accessed May 29, 2013.

"Israel Targeted Iranian Missiles In Syria Attack." New York Times. May 4, 2013. Accessed May 29, 2013.

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