- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Regional calls for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad reached new heights Wednesday, with Turkey describing the Assad regime as “one of state terrorism” and Egypt asserting that Mr. Assad should learn from the “recent history” of deposed Arab dictators and step down.

“It’s too late to talk about reform; this is the time for change,” Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi told Arab leaders Wednesday in Cairo. “There is no room for further delaying a decision that will stop the bloodshed.”

Mr. Morsi’s remarks dovetailed with assertions made by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who told an audience in Istanbul that Mr. Assad’s government had devolved into “one of state terrorism.” Meanwhile, U.S. officials announced an uptick in American aid for Syrian refugees.

The apparent stiffening in the regional posture against Mr. Assad coincided with a visit to Iraq by a group of U.S. senators who warned the government in Baghdad that it risked damaging relations with the United States if it allowed Iranian planes to fly across Iraqi airspace with weapon shipments for Syria.

According to a report Tuesday in the New York Times, senior U.S. officials said they think such shipments are part of a renewed Iranian effort to bolster the Syrian military’s 17-month-old crackdown on opposition groups.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, who was in Baghdad on Wednesday, said Iraqi officials’ failure to stop the Iranian flights might jeopardize aid that Iraq could receive from the United States as part of a 2008 strategic pact between the nations.

“Bottom line, this kind of problem with these Iranian overflights can make it more difficult to proceed with the Strategic Framework Agreement in the manner that the prime minster and we would like to see happen,” said Mr. Lieberman, Connecticut independent. “So I hope this is cleared up quickly.”

Coordinating a response

In response, an Iraqi government spokesman told the Associated Press that Iran had told Baghdad that the flights are delivering only humanitarian aid to Syria and that the onus is on the U.S. to present proof that Tehran is shipping weapons.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, who appeared in Baghdad with Mr. Lieberman and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said the situation in Syria has put the Iraqis “in a pickle.”

“The reason they’re probably not pushing back on Iran is because they don’t see how this ends,” Mr. Graham told reporters in Baghdad.

“This region is about [to] explode,” he said in an apparent reference to the specter that Iraq might be coordinating with Iran to bolster the Syrian military’s war against factions that have taken up arms against Mr. Assad.

Such coordination may signal a regional squaring-off of nation-states along sectarian and religious lines with respect to the Syrian war — with Shiite-dominated governments in Baghdad and Tehran siding with Mr. Assad and Sunni-dominated governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey backing the rebels.

The extent to which such regional divisions might develop remains to be seen.

Mr. Morsi, whose Sunni-dominated Muslim Brotherhood has gained unprecedented influence in Egypt since the ouster last year of strongman Hosni Mubarak, has called for Iran to be part of the solution in Syria.

Making his first presidential address to the Arab League, whose members gathered in Cairo on Wednesday, Mr. Morsi said Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Egypt would meet to discuss the Syrian crisis.

Regional tensions

Details of the meeting were not immediately clear, and regional analysts generally agree that Egypt’s internal turbulence makes it an unlikely candidate to rouse the region into cohesive action on Syria.

“In terms of what Egypt can actually do, it’s quite limited,” said Daniel L. Byman, a senior Middle East policy fellow at the Brookings Institution.

He said Turkey has the potential to effect change more quickly and deeply in Syria, but that Mr. Morsi’s remarks against the Assad regime could have a different impact.

“It enables anti-Assad forces around the region to claim a moral higher ground,” he said.

Others criticized the Obama administration for not doing more to calm tensions in the region.

Mr. Graham told reporters in Baghdad on Wednesday that “there’s an amazing lack of American leadership, and it’s beginning to show on all fronts.”

With a U.S. presidential election looming, the White House has appeared cautious about becoming entangled in Syria’s civil war.

The administration has argued publicly for months against arming the Syrian opposition. But reports suggest that the White House and CIA are collaborating closely with Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are secretly channeling weapons to the rebels.

Apart from vaguely worded assertions, however, the administration has remained mum on such activities. During a recent visit to Turkey, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said only that the U.S. is “coordinating our efforts with others who are also providing various forms of support.”

Humanitarian crisis deepens

The Turkish border with Syria has swelled with refugee camps filled by an estimated 80,000 refugees.

Syria is going through a huge humanitarian saga,” Mr. Erdogan said Wednesday. “Unfortunately, as usual, the international community is merely watching the slaughter.”

Syrian opposition groups say more than 23,000 people have been killed by the violence.

The Obama administration has attempted to lead an international push for aid to those displaced by the conflict. The U.S. announced a $21 million boost in such aid Wednesday amid U.N. reports that more than 100,000 Syrians fled to neighboring countries in August.

“The United States remains deeply concerned by the humanitarian crisis caused by the violence,” said a statement released by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. “We commend the generosity of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq in assisting approximately 240,000 Syrians who have fled.”

The uptick in aid from U.S. taxpayers brings the total U.S. humanitarian assistance for displaced Syrians to more than $100 million, with funds spread across a variety of international agencies.

About $49 million has been channeled to the World Food Program, more than $23 million to the main U.N. refugee office and some $15 million to nongovernmental groups operating in the region.

U.S. officials said $14.3 million of the new funding will go toward food assistance for conflict-affected people in Syria and $6.7 million to support Syrians displaced to neighboring countries.

The United Nations says as many as 2.5 million people in Syria need some form of humanitarian assistance.