NEW YORK – Syria’s insurgents have specific requests: surface-to-air missiles to
shoot down enemy aircraft and heavy weaponry to take out tanks they will never
be able to otherwise face.
The imbalance of arms in Syria’s devastating
civil war has Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah convinced that, if things continue as
they are, insurgents fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad will be
unable to take Damascus by force, he charged in a speech on Tuesday broadcast
The Washington Post reported this week that US President
Barack Obama is preparing an attempt to tip that balance by providing lethal
weaponry to the opposition. But to whom those shipments will go is the central
question that has delayed this policy decision in the White House for over a
year, and an answer remains elusive, experts say.
To vet opposition
fighters, the administration has two options: rely on the intelligence and
ground game of allied regional powers, or do it itself.
“There are also
sub-options: If we do it directly, do we do it through the Supreme Military
Council, or do we provide it to specific groups that we think are compatible
with our values?” asks Jeffrey White, a military expert at the Washington
Institute for Near East Policy.
“The administration likes doing things
with its allies, so perhaps there’s a third methodology: a consortium of arms
Saudi Arabia has reportedly funded significant arms purchases
from Croatia and shipped them to rebel forces through Jordan with assistance
from the latter kingdom, which has a significant ground presence in the
In the process, these US allies have gained valuable knowledge
about those fighting the Assad regime.
But relying on the Jordanian or
Turkish networks is unlikely to provide Washington with reassurance that its
arms are any less likely to fall into the wrong hands.
aspect of [actively] training [the opposition] is that you’re not just making
them better fighters, but you’re also learning which ones are moderates and
figuring out who to trust with political weight,” says Daniel Byman, director of
research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution
“But if we do this through allies on the ground in Syria,
they’ll have a better sense of who is who, but they’ll also have different
preferences than ours.”
Syria has complained to the United Nations on
several occasions over the past several months that Turkey is enabling
“al-Qaida, as well as the Nusra Front and other terrorist organizations, to
assemble, take refuge, receive funding and arms, engage in smuggling, and enter
Indeed, an internal political debate has surfaced in
Turkey over whether the Nusra Front – labeled a terrorist organization by the
United States and by NATO – is an enemy or a positive Islamic force.
Turkey-EU Joint Parliamentary Commission in February, Turkish Foreign Minister
Ahmet Davutoglu said, in reaction to questions about the Nusra Front’s
classification as a terrorist group, that “for [Turkey], jihad is a sacred
notion. Let us not taint this notion by using it like neocons and pro-Israelis
“It’s not that the Turks can’t delineate between the rebels
– it’s that they don’t care to,” says Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official
and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
we’re unable to vet two Chechens living in Cambridge, how are we going to
effectively vet armed gangs in Syria?”
That fear has Michael Oren, Israel’s
ambassador to Washington, calling publicly and privately for the administration
to mull this decision with a full appreciation of the consequences.
we have stated is that if a decision were to be made to provide weapons to
rebels, those who receive them should be closely vetted,” Oren told The
Jerusalem Post last week.
But at this point in the conflict, the White
House sees few reasons not to get involved in the fight, whether by direct or
“One thing we’ve learned from our activities so far in
providing food and other amenities is that we don’t get a lot of recognition for
doing it,” White added. “And the name of the game here is to gain some influence
with an armed group so we can shape the battlefield, and [the] battle after.”