WASHINGTON— 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.
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.