News / Middle East

West Debates Whether to Arm Syrian Opposition

A Free Syrian Army fighter inspects his weapon in the Khan al-Assal area near Aleppo, April 27, 2013.
A Free Syrian Army fighter inspects his weapon in the Khan al-Assal area near Aleppo, April 27, 2013.
Short of weapons, rebel forces have been fighting the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad for more than two years. At the same time, there is a debate in the West over whether the United States and other Western countries should provide weapons to the insurgents.

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 a recent interview that Damascus has received a first shipment of a Russian air defense system that could deter foreign military intervention.

Syrian opposition lightly armed

The opposition forces don’t 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 the European Union has lifted its arms embargo on the Syrian opposition in an effort to restore a military balance.

John Pike, head of GlobalSecurity.org, a firm specializing in defense issues, agrees with the EU decision.

“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.”

However, other 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 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,” he said.

Arming opposition questioned

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,” she 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.”

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.

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by: Pete Street
May 30, 2013 3:42 PM
Note carefully this text: “It’s very hard to find ‘white hats’ [good people] in that conflict [the Syrian civil war]," 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.” If factual, then this passage must inform the US leadership contemplating the putting of its hand in this civil war. After all, whom would the US arm in the anti-government forces without inadvertently arming Islamic terrorists? Besides, the regional powers reportedly have been doing the dirty work of involvement in this internal conflic. Finally, the US has no burning interest in the Syrian civil war, and the US apparently has no reliable method of determining which side may’ve used poison gas. This analysis offers a simple-to-understand position for the US to stay out of the Syrian civil war. Let the US instead observe events there as they sort out among the involved parties.

by: dan
May 30, 2013 3:37 PM
Newsflash: we've been arming the rebels since they first began fighting in Libya.

This article is extremely misleading in saying that the US is debating supplying the rebels. Covert programs aren't on the table for debate in Congress.

by: Tebi Thomlinson from: UK
May 30, 2013 3:23 PM
why can't we let Israel sort things out there??? they embody our ideals of western egalitarian liberal democratic country and we trust them explicitly. So why do we have to get involved??? these problems are very distressing to the European community at a time when we do not need additional stress...

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