WASHINGTON— Saudi Arabia reportedly is offering to provide Syrian rebels more sophisticated weapons, including shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles that can take down fighter planes and helicopter gunships.
They could be a game changer in the Syrian civil war.
Known as MANPADS or man-portable air defense systems, the shoulder-fired missiles are a highly-effective weapon.
Now, Saudi Arabia is offering to supply moderate rebels with these weapons. That could tip the balance on the battlefield.
Senior Middle East analyst David Weinberg said, “They [Saudis] see Sunnis, their compatriots being slaughtered by Shi’ites whom they perceive as heretics, and they see a religious obligation to rise to the side of their compatriots who have been struggling on the battlefield.”
American supplied shoulder-fired Stinger missiles helped the mujahedeen drive the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1980s. U.S. officials, however, oppose arming Syrian rebels with such weapons. They are concerned the missiles could fall into the hands of extremists who might use them to fire at commercial airliners.
Because of U.S. opposition, the Saudis have not supplied MANPADS in the past.
Middle East expert David Schenker at the Washington Institute said, “It is just too dangerous. There is too much leakage. And there is already a huge surplus from Libya that is out there in the open market that is moving around the Middle East, that poses a tremendous threat to civilian aircraft.”
The rebels cannot compete with Syria’s Russian-made helicopters that have been dropping barrel bombs on the civilian population.
Failed peace negotiations have disappointed the Obama administration, which no longer believes Russia will play a constructive role.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, "Russia needs to be a part of the solution and not be contributing so many more weapons and so much more aid that they are in fact enabling [Syrian President Bashar al] Assad to double down."
Wealthy Persian Gulf states also are offering to supply moderate Syrian rebels with anti-tank guided missiles.
Some analysts say it is time to strengthen them.
“We’ve wasted a lot of time. And there has been a lot of suffering because the rebels have not been as successful as they could be. I think we have got to help change the dynamic on the ground,” said Schenker.
Reaching out to Riyadh
The Syrian war and disagreements over Iran’s nuclear program have strained relations between Riyadh and Washington.
Kerry has made two recent visits to reduce tensions.
“Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia are quite poor right now," said Weinberg. "They are going through a rough patch. They are not going through a divorce.”
President Barack Obama is said to be rethinking U.S. strategy toward Syria.
No doubt arming the Syrian rebels will be on the agenda when Obama travels to Saudi Arabia in late March.