Photo: FreedomHouse

Military Aid to Syrian Rebels and US involvement: What are the Risks?

Last week, the New York Times reported that along with the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) assistance, Arab governments and Turkey have increased their military aid to Syrian opposition fighters in the recent months, including the expansion of airlift of arms and equipment for the anti-Assad uprising. The New York Times cites air traffic data, interviews with officials of several countries, and rebel commanders’ accounts as evidence of military support to the Syrian rebels.

Many countries see military aid as a means of ending the civil war and humanitarian crisis in Syria. According to the United Nations, nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict and one million displaced. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights states that there were more than 6,000 documented deaths in March alone, making it the bloodiest month in the two year old conflict.

Who are the rebels?

The Syrian rebels comprise of a variety of groups, most notable of whom include the Free Syrian Army, National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, and the National Coordination Committee. The Syrian National Council is a coalition of opposition groups formed in October 2011 to offer a credible alternative to the Syrian government and to serve as the point of contact for the international community. Recently, there have been further signs of division amongst the opposition.

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Over the weekend, the president of the Syrian National Coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib resigned from his post after the Syrian National Council chose Ghassan Hitto to serve as the interim prime minister and to set up a government in the rebel-held areas. Hitto’s candidacy was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the Syrian National Council. Last month, the Syrian National Council criticized Al-Khatib for stating the he was ready to engage in talks with Syrian Vice-President, Farouq al-Sharaa in another country if Assad’s government met several conditions, including the release of political prisoners.

BBC News reports that the National Coalition has not been able to assert its control over Syria’s rebel groups. Several offensives in Aleppo and Damascus were initiated by jihadist groups, which do not recognize the coalition’s primacy. The divisions amongst the rebels raise questions about the risks involved in providing aid.

US involvement

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Early in 2012, the rebels called for international help and weapons after the Syrian Army attacked Homs. According to the New York Times article, air traffic data indicate that by late spring, the first stream of cargo flights from an Arab state began. From April 26 through May 4 of 2012, a Qatari Air Force C-17 cargo plane made six landings in Turkey. By August 8, the Qatari planes had made 14 cargo flights. The New York Times article indicates that all flights came from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar — a hub of American military logistics in the Middle East.

Qatar has denied that it is providing arms to rebels. The New York Times report quotes a Qatari official, who said that Qatar has shipped only non-lethal aid. While it is unclear whether the country has supplied arms alone or is also providing air transportation for other donors, American and other Western officials alongside rebel commanders have stated that Qatar has been an active arms supplier, which has raised US concerns about the weapons falling in the hands of extremists, as indicated by the report. According to Al Jazeera — a news service headquarted in Qatar — Sheikh Hamad, the emir of Qatar, has denied that the country has been arming the rebels, claiming that Qatar has only provided humanitarian and logistical assistance.

Evidence of US involvement comes from a former American official who told the New York Times that David H. Petraeus, the former C.I. A. director, was involved in getting the aviation network moving and prodding the involved countries to work together. The former official noted that the American government became involved because there was a sense that other countries would arm the rebels anyhow and by facilitating the shipments, the US would have a degree of influence over the process, including steering the weapons away from Islamist groups and persuading donors to withhold portable anti-aircraft missiles that might be used in future terrorist attacks on civilian aircraft.

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On February 28, the Obama administration announced that it would provide $60 million in assistance to the Syrian opposition. This was a major shift in the US stance towards supporting the rebels: it was the first time the US had decided to provide non-lethal aid, including food and medical supplies, directly to the rebels. The announcement was made by US Secretary of State, John Kerry at an international conference on Syria in Rome. “We do this because we need to stand on the side of those in this fight who want to see Syria rise again and see democracy and human rights,” Kerry said, as quoted by the Associated Press. “The stakes are really high, and we can’t risk letting this country in the heart of the Middle East being destroyed by vicious autocrats or hijacked by the extremists.” Before this announcement, the US had provided $385 million in humanitarian aid to the Syrian population and $54 million for communications equipment, medical supplies and other non-lethal assistance to Syria’s political opposition.

Concerns over arms shipment

Many in policy circles express concerns over providing military support to the rebels because it is considered a high-risk strategy. Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, was quoted by the Financial Post as saying: “Already some of those weapons… have been shown in radical militants’ hands. And even though the weapons are significantly better than they were before, they are still not the sophisticated kind the opposition would like.”

France has also expressed concerns over arms ending up in the hands of extremists. Last week, the country announced that it will uphold the European Union (EU) embargo on weapons exports to the Syrian rebels – a shift from France’s position two weeks ago when it pressed for the relaxation of the EU arms embargo on Syria. In an interview with France 2, President Francois Hollande indicated that France needed to be convinced that the weapons would not end with terrorists. Hollande was quoted by Al Jazeera as stating: “We will not do it as long as we cannot be certain that there is complete control of the situation by the opposition.” The EU embargo expires on June 1, 2013.

The United Kingdom has also expressed concerns. William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary and First Secretary of State, stated in a Sky News interview: “If we did that [provide military aid] it would have to be very carefully controlled in terms of what we would actually send, how we would monitor what was sent and the guarantees that would be needed from the people they were sent to.” However, he added, “if this crisis goes on worsening in the way that it is in the coming weeks and months, there are even greater risks that have to be weighed against that: the risks of international terrorism and extremism taking root in Syria; the risks of Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan being destabilised; and the risks of extreme humanitarian distress.” He concluded: “As ever in foreign policy, you have to weigh some risks against other risks.”

Could weapons for the rebels improve the situation on the ground?

According to Jeffrey White, a fellow at the Washington Institute, military assistance could help the rebels defend the civilian population areas they control against threats from the air, missiles, and ground forces. Furthermore, White states that anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons could assist in creating safe zones.

However, White also expresses concerns about how the weapons shipments are handled. He notes that the nature of the rebel forces complicate the situation for those considering providing military aid. He notes, weapons are fungible in the Syrian war, that is, they can be traded, sold, and used to gain influence, aside from serving in a combat role. To this end, any country considering military aid to Syrian rebels needs to limit the risk of weapons leaking to undesirable forces. Some analysts compare Syria to Afghanistan in the 1980s. In the 1980s, the US and Saudi Arabia were arming the Afghan rebels in their fight against the Soviet-backed Communist government in Afghanistan. Following the Soviet Union’s withdrawal, the weapons ended in the hands of Taliban, which enabled them to win the civil war.

While it is too early to tell whether the military aid will lead to better protection of the civilian population, analysts insist that strategies regarding military aid to Syrian rebels require a high level of caution.

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