Don’t arm the Syrian opposition, say U.S. officials

Amid a growing chorus of conservative voices urging the arming of the Syrian opposition, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Monday it's trying to broker a ceasefire that would bring at least a temporary halt to violence that has killed over 6,000 people.

"We are currently discussing several possibilities with all those concerned, and it includes a cessation of fighting in the most affected areas," the ICRC's spokesman Carla Haddad told the Associated Press from Geneva on Monday. "The idea is to be able to facilitate swift access to people in need."

The ceasefire efforts come as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due to travel to Tunisia later this week for an international "Friends of Syria" group meeting on the Syrian crisis.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) called for the arming of the Syrian opposition, to defend itself from Bashar al-Assad's brutal crackdown. "It is time we gave the (opposition) the wherewithal to fight back and stop the slaughter," McCain said at a Cairo news conference on Monday, Agence-France Press reported.

But top U.S. officials and analysts dismissed such proposals as hasty and unwise, especially given recent U.S. intelligence assessments that al-Qaida is operating in Syria to conduct attacks against the Assad regime.

"I think it's premature to take a decision to arm the opposition movement in Syria because I would challenge anyone to clearly identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point," Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN's Fareed Zakaria in an interview broadcast Sunday. "There are indications that al Qaeda is involved and that they're interested in supporting the opposition. ... And until we're a lot clearer about, you know, who they are and what they are, I think it would be premature to talk about arming them."

In a new Center for New American Security (CNAS) report released Tuesday, author Marc Lynch argues that the U.S. and its international partners should apply pressure against the Assad regime instead of resorting to arming the opposition. "What I think we should be looking for is to accelerate the process of high-level regime defections," Lynch said in an interview with Yahoo News on Monday, noting that there have been very few so far. "Give Assad a make or break ultimatum. Tell him he can make a deal or go to the ICC [International Criminal Court] to face war crimes charges. That will deliver a real message to the next layer down in the [Assad regime] that they don't have forever."

Among the CNAS report's recommendations: presenting Assad and top Syrian regime officials with the choice of resigning or facing possible war crimes prosecution; increasing international economic sanctions that target top Syrian political and military leaders; stepping up international efforts to help unify the Syrian opposition; and forging a strategic communications campaign to publicize the Syrian regime's atrocities.

"Unleashing even more violence without a realistic prospect of changing the regime's behavior or improving security," wrote Lynch, director of George Washington University's Institute of Middle East studies, in the CNAS report, "is neither just nor wise."

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