News / Middle East

Analysts Examine Debate Over US Arms to Syrian Rebels

People run for cover after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Raqqa province, eastern Syria, June 10, 2013.
People run for cover after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Raqqa province, eastern Syria, June 10, 2013.
As the United States is moving ahead to provide weapons to Syrian rebels, there are questions about how Washington will do so.

Short of sophisticated weapons, rebel forces have been fighting the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad for more than two years. And experts agree there is a military imbalance between Syrian government troops and opposition forces.

Damascus has a wide variety of weapons at its disposal, including thousands of tanks, helicopters, jet fighters, heavy artillery, armored personnel carriers and chemical weapons.

For decades, first the Soviet Union and now Russia provided Damascus with arms.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad indicated in an interview that Damascus has received a first shipment of a Russian air defense system that could deter foreign military intervention.

Opposition lightly armed

The opposition forces do not have heavy weapons or helicopters. They are essentially armed with assault rifles, machine-guns, anti-tank rockets and a few shoulder-fired missiles.

Experts say much of the weaponry used by the insurgents has either been captured from military depots, taken from soldiers of the Syrian army who have defected or purchased on the black market.

Reports say countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia are also either providing funds to the rebels to purchase weapons, or are directly supplying them with arms.

Analysts say in an effort to restore a military balance, the European Union recently lifted its arms embargo on the Syrian opposition.

John Pike, head of GlobalSecurity.org, a firm specializing in defense issues, said the international debate over how to intervene in a regional conflict is not unique.

“This is exactly the same debate that we were having 20 years ago over Bosnia," he said. "We had an arms embargo, they were massacring their own people and eventually the policy that we came to was called ‘lift and strike’ - lift the embargo and strike the oppressor. And after a few weeks of that, [Slobodan] Milosevic, the Serbian dictator, was brought to the table.”

The United States has decided to provide arms to rebels after an intelligence report found conclusive evidence that Damascus used chemical weapons, including sarin, on a limited scale.

Analysts' fears

Still, some analysts believe arming the Syrian opposition is fraught with danger.

Fawaz Gerges, with the London School of Economics, said it is difficult to determine who should receive military aid.

“You have about 300 armed factions inside Syria," he said. "There is no unified command and control. It’s chaotic; it’s fragmented; it’s decentralized. This fragmentation lies at the very heart of why the armed opposition inside Syria has not been able to deliver a decisive blow to the Assad government.”

"In fact, the divisions among various armed factions inside Syria have been a great liability and it has allowed Assad to go on the offensive, in particular in the last four months,” Gerges said.

John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is also wary about providing weapons to the Syrian rebels.

“It’s very hard to find ‘white hats’ [good people] in that conflict," he said. "There is nothing good to be said about the Assad regime, but there is very little good to be said about most of the key leaders of the opposition, which is now shot through with al-Qaida and other terrorists and radical Islamist factions.”

Mona Yacoubian, senior analyst with the Stimson Center in Washington, takes it one step further.

“From an American interest standpoint, of course there are lingering, continuing concerns about whether or not such arms would end up in the wrong hands, in the hands of jihadist extremists who have an agenda that is inimical to the interests of the United States,”  Yacoubian said.

“And there is also the issue of the fact that this is a sectarian civil war and in fueling, or providing arms to one side, does the United States and others become essentially partisans in what is a sectarian civil war,” she said.

Until now, the United States has been providing the Syrian opposition with only non-lethal assistance - such as medical supplies, communications equipment and water purification kits.

But the Obama administration has come under increasing pressure, especially from Republican lawmakers like Senator John McCain, to provide the anti-Assad forces with heavy weaponry - especially since Russia is going ahead with plans to deliver to Syria advanced anti-aircraft missiles.

Andre de Nesnera

Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

You May Like

Disappointing Report on China's Economy Shakes Markets

In London and New York shares lost 3 percent, while Paris and Germany dropped around 2.4 percent More

DRC Tries Mega-Farms to Feed Population

Park at Boukanga Lonzo currently has 5,000 hectares under cultivation, crops stretching as far as eye can see, and is start of ambitious large-scale agriculture plan More

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Areas are spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, source of livelihood for fishermen and herders who have called the marshes home for generations More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs