Mulling arming Syrian rebels, Obama wary of proxies

'Washington Post' reports US president preparing to send lethal arms to Syrian opposition amid reports of chemical weapons use.

US President Barack Obama 370 (R) (photo credit: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
US President Barack Obama 370 (R)
(photo credit: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
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 from Tehran.
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 providers.”
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 conflict.
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.
“The positive 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 in Washington.
“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 Syrian territory.”
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.
At a 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 in America.”
“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.
“If 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.
“All 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 indirect means.
“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.”