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

Mali's Female Basketball Players Rebound After Islamist Occupation

Islamist extremists ruled northern Mali for most of 2012, imposing strict Sharia law, and now some 18 months later, the region is slowly getting back on its feet More

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

Many Chinese-made products go unsold, for now, with numerous Vietnamese consumers still angry over recent dispute More

Koreas Mark 61st Anniversary of War Armistice

Muted observances on both sides of heavily-armed Demilitarized Zone that separates two decades-long enemies More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Students in Business for Themselvesi
X
Mike O'Sullivan
July 26, 2014 11:04 AM
They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid