Right Web

Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

US Arms for Syrian Rebels: Bad Choices, Lousy Timing

Some analysts believe that the U.S. decision to arm "moderate" elements of Syria's opposition forces is more likely to prolong the bloodshed and foster rebel in-fighting than turn the tables against Assad.

Print Friendly

LobeLog

The Obama Administration finally has decided to provide lethal military support to the Syrian rebels. Yet, if Washington’s main focus is providing arms, a detailed review of just that one option suggests it probably would not be enough to prevent some additional regime successes. Moreover, giving arms only to so-called “vetted” (or moderate) rebel groups could aggravate tensions between disparate opposition camps, perhaps leading to rebel infighting. Some believe a US goal in supplying arms now (aside from bolstering the rebels) would be to re-balance the situation as a prelude to negotiations. Yet, getting the many combatants—especially the rebels—to stand down is unlikely, so the outcome of limited arms shipments could be familiar: more prolonged bloodletting and destruction.

Ideally, any robust US arms resupply to “vetted” rebels should have begun 18 months ago, when the rebels had established themselves as a viable counter to the regime, and the number of Islamic extremists in their midst was far more limited. A decision to do so now would risk being too selective militarily to have much overall impact. Also, some portion of whatever arms are supplied could trickle into extremist hands. And the option of having the US better coordinate the flow of arms to the opposition, if the amount of arms provided were not increased substantially, might not accomplish all that much in altering the situation to rebel advantage.

To elaborate on the country-wide military balance, even if supplies of arms successfully could be confined to relatively moderate rebels (although that distinction is a bit blurry inside Syria), they have not been the most successful opposition combatants against regime forces. The rebel military vanguard has been radical Islamist in character—even al-Qaeda affiliated—for some time now, a deeply disturbing trend in and of itself.

Then there is the thorny question of exactly what arms to provide. The rebels want large quantities of shoulder fired anti-tank rockets (like RPG-7’s) and surface-to-air missiles (like SA-7’s), as well as a far steadier supply of various types of ammunition. “Vetted” rebels probably should have been receiving large quantities of RPG-7’s and a reliable flow of ammunition long ago. But supplying SA-7’s or their equivalents is a different story, since any secured by terrorists could be used with great effect against commercial airliners—even US military transports in various regional venues.

Perhaps SA-7’s could be given in small numbers to “vetted” fighters to test how much of a difference these weapons actually would make and whether some of them would end up with extremist rebels. Monitoring such leakage effectively, however, would pose an extremely difficult challenge for US and other allied intelligence agencies. And, of course, there is the problem of possible straying from any such restricted policy by some regional suppliers (such as Qatar, which many suspect has been supplying rebel extremists).

Still, which rebels to supply aside, even an upgraded and more reliable flow of munitions to them might not enable the opposition to halt or reverse the momentum regime forces have seized, at least over the near-term. Thousands of Hezbollah combatants already are in the field with plentiful supplies and training. The regime rebound also appears to have been driven in part by an intensified fear within its popular base of the consequences of a Sunni extremist victory (probably with good reason).

Only a more complex and demanding no-fly zone in rebel-dominated northern Syria, in the south where the regime has made gains, both, or across the country entirely could remove the rebel need for SA-7’s, but such a course carries with it the very real potential for escalation. With a massive advantage over the rebels in armored vehicles and heavy artillery, even in the face of a no-fly zone suppressing Syrian aerial activity, the rebels would remain at the mercy of the regime’s other heavy weapons on the ground, thus tempting those establishing any sort of no-fly zone to attack regime ground targets as well.

Still worse, the lack of effective military coordination among many rebel groups has been a major tactical disadvantage that more weapons—and training—would not correct. This allows regime and Hezbollah forces to concentrate in selected locales (possibly Aleppo next) to maximize their advantage. Meanwhile, less coordinated rebel elements would likely remain unable to do likewise on a comparable scale (especially if the many hard-fighting extremist rebel cadres were left under-armed). Another growing problem for the rebels is popular support: excesses on the part of extremist elements have alienated significant numbers of Syrians previously supportive of the opposition in some key areas under rebel control.

An additional potential risk of selective arms shipments could be clashes between rival rebel groups. Extremist elements might attack more moderate rebel units receiving better arms, driven by need, resentment, or both. Some al-Qaeda in Iraq militants flowing into Syria already are veterans of combat against Arab forces allied to the US. Rebel infighting has occurred in past rebellions, such as the savage fighting that broke out between the less fanatical Islamic FIS and the militant GIA during their battle against the Algerian regime in the 1990s.

A conflict within a conflict possibly pitting the extremist al-Nusra Front and the like against more moderate rebels exclusively receiving arms from the US and its allies would worsen an already complex and ugly maelstrom. Instead of strengthening the rebels, any infighting resulting from an inequitable distribution of arms would weaken both rebel factions—something the government eagerly would exploit to its advantage (as happened in Algeria).

It is no wonder it took the Obama Administration since late last summer to formulate a policy on lethal American support for Syria’s rebels, with limited regime chemical weapons use only partly driving the decision. But even by mid-2012, supplying enough weapons to make a difference without providing them to extremists already had become an iffy proposition militarily. And with the opposition disunited, with some component groups bitterly opposing talks and rebels now regaining hope for victory over the regime with US help, useful diplomatic engagement also seems less promising than when Secretary John Kerry went to Moscow early last month.

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office.

Share RightWeb

Featured Profiles

Although sometimes characterized as a Republican “maverick” for his bipartisan forays into domestic policy, Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is one of the Senate’s more vocal hawks.


Former CIA director Michael Hayden, a stalwart advocate of the Bush-era policies on torture and warrantless wiretapping, has been a vocal critic of Donald Trump


The former GOP presidential candidate and Speaker of the House has been a vociferous proponent of the idea that the America faces an existential threat from “Islamofascists.”


David Albright is the founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, a non-proliferation think tank whose influential analyses of nuclear proliferation issues in the Middle East have been the source of intense disagreement and debate.


A right-wing Christian and governor of Kansas, Brownback previously served in the U.S. Senate, where he gained a reputation as a leading social conservative as well as an outspoken “pro-Israel” hawk on U.S. Middle East policy.


Steve Forbes, head of the Forbes magazine empire, is an active supporter of a number of militarist policy organizations that have pushed for aggressive U.S. foreign policies.


Stephen Hadley, an Iraq War hawk and former national security adviser to President George W. Bush, now chairs the U.S. Institute for Peace.


For media inquiries,
email rightwebproject@gmail.com

From the Wires

Print Friendly

The Trump administration appears to have been surprised by this breach among its friends in the critical Gulf strategic area. But it is difficult to envision an effective U.S. role in rebuilding this Humpty-Dumpty.


Print Friendly

A recent vote in the European Parliament shows how President Trump’s relentless hostility to Iran is likely to isolate Washington more than Tehran.


Print Friendly

The head of the Institute for Science and International Security—aka “the Good ISIS”—recently demonstrated again his penchant for using sloppy analysis as a basis for politically explosive charges about Iran, in this case using a faulty translation from Persian to misleadingly question whether Tehran is “mass producing advanced gas centrifuges.”


Print Friendly

Trump has exhibited a general preference for authoritarians over democrats, and that preference already has had impact on his foreign policy. Such an inclination has no more to do with realism than does a general preference for democrats over authoritarians.


Print Friendly

The President went to the region as a deal maker and a salesman for American weapon manufacturing. He talked about Islam, terrorism, Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without the benefit of expert advice in any of these areas. After great showmanship in Riyadh, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem, he and his family left the region without much to show for or to benefit the people of that war-torn region.


Print Friendly

Although the Comey memo scandal may well turn out to be what brings Trump down, this breach of trust may have had more lasting effect than any of Trump’s other numerous misadventures. It was an unprecedented betrayal of Israel’s confidence. Ironically, Trump has now done what even Barack Obama’s biggest detractors never accused him of: seriously compromised Israel’s security relationship with the United States.


Print Friendly

Congress and the public acquiesce in another military intervention or a sharp escalation of one of the U.S. wars already under way, perhaps it’s time to finally consider the true costs of war, American-style — in lives lost, dollars spent, and opportunities squandered. It’s a reasonable bet that never in history has a society spent more on war and gotten less bang for its copious bucks.


RightWeb
share