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Reactions: Experts Weigh in on the U.S. Move to Arm the Rebels

On Thursday, the White House announced that it would, for the first time, supply military aid to Syrian rebels. Details were not announced, triggering speculation that the aid would be anything from a no-fly zone (favored by U.S. Senator John McCain, arguably the staunchest supporter of Western military intervention in Syria) to the anti-aircraft weapons that top the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) wish list in the ongoing fight against the Syrian air force.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Earlier in the day, the U.S. claimed it had evidence that Bashar al-Assad’s regime had used the chemical weapon agent Sarin, a poisonous gas, on a small scale against rebel forces, crossing the “red line” President Barack Obama has said would lead him to intervene.

Here, Syria watchers – and a rebel commander – react to Obama’s decision.

Abu Hussein, 28, a defected FSA lieutenant who fought in Qusayr and recently escaped from Syria to Beirut: 

The U.S. just talks. Hezbollah admitted that they entered the war in Syria with all of their power, and Russia keeps helping the regime with weapons and policy, while for two years the U.S. has said Bashar must leave, but does nothing.

Every day they kill more than 150 Syrians [referring to the U.S. saying the regime killed 150-plus people with Sarin gas]. The regime used chemical weapons months ago. The U.S. did nothing before about it, and we don’t think they will now.

Syrians think that the U.S. and others want this war to stay alive as much as possible. All of the help and aid is just to keep the opposition fighting and not to let the war end. But now things are changing quickly: Hezbollah entered with large numbers, and there is direct support from Iran. The U.S. and others now must do something quickly, or all of Syria will be occupied by Iran and Hezbollah.

Chris Phillips, Syria expert and lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East at the University of London and associate fellow, Chatham House: 

I can understand from a short-term perspective why people think arming the rebels is a good idea: they’ve got the right to defend themselves, the imbalance is huge on the ground, the regime is brutally targeting civilians to instill terror.

From a broader analytical position, I fail to see how arming the rebels will bring about the end of this civil war any quicker. It seems likely to exacerbate tensions and to deter the regime and the rebels from offering to negotiate, because both sides will now think they have to win it. It’ll encourage Iran and Russia to donate more weapons to the regime and seems to fan the flames of conflict. The question is, What is the West’s goal in Syria? What are they trying to do? End the civil war? Topple the Assad regime? Prevent the state from collapsing? Ideally, they want to do all these things, but they are not willing to put in the level of resources that their rivals are. Iran and Russia are far more committed to this than the U.S, Britain and France. So they are unlikely to achieve these goals.

Within the political community, there’s a feeling of, “You’ve got to put money where your mouth is, Obama. You’ve got to act.” In the sheer length of time it has taken to respond to [questions about U.S. intervention], he’s been losing his credibility as a leader both internationally and domestically. The great irony of this [lifting of the E.U.’s embargo of weapons to Syrian rebels] was that it was a stalking horse for the U.S. [The E.U.] never would have done it without [the support of] the U.S. And that move itself changed dynamics on the ground, because Russia immediately responded by saying they’re going to send a large number of anti-aircraft missiles [to Syria]. It also caused the [Syrian army’s] attack on Qusayr to step up at that point, and the regime’s gains on the ground then seemed correlated to this move to arm the rebels.

Obama knows full well he cannot do a no-fly zone by half. If they set up a no-fly zone, given the level of air [power] that the regime has, a no-fly zone is something you have to maintain for an indefinite period of time, and there’s a chance that would mean high casualties. We can’t just start with a no-fly zone; you first have to get more involved with fighting on one side of the civil war, which Obama doesn’t want. We’ll see [the U.S. give the rebels] small arms and maybe anti-tank weapons. The U.S. is very reluctant, because if they end up in the wrong hands, they’ll be very dangerous.

Volker Perthes, director of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs:

Pressure has been building up in the U.S. to do more to back the Syrian opposition. The administration has been thinking about what to do to help the opposition regain some balance without involving the U.S. too deeply, particularly with [Secretary of State John] Kerry trying to get a meaningful diplomatic process [Geneva II] and knowing that this won’t happen unless there is some balance between the warring parties.

Obama certainly doesn’t want to involve U.S. troops in another Middle East war. However, he can also not afford to have Hezbollah and Iran win in Syria. Thus, he has made the decision to arm the Syrian opposition. Not to an extent to make them able to go for military victory, but in order to make them strong enough to forge a political process and meaningful negotiations on a transitional government in Geneva – which probably won’t happen so soon.

Aram Nerguizian, analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies:

The wording of the administration’s press statement on so-called Syrian chemical weapons “red lines” seems to point to a rationale for officially talking military aid while going into the G8. Obviously this is something that Russia will strongly object to and view as the U.S. back-tracking on preferences tied to a diplomatic process. From a regional standpoint (i.e. in the eyes of local forces in and around Syria), the announcement will be perceived as having less to do with any regime use of chemical weapons and more to do with recent regime and allied successes against the armed opposition. The West may be uncertain about what opposition victory may even mean anymore, but it is still focused on preventing a regime victory.

It is still unclear what sorts of weapons the administration will elect to provide. It is unlikely that the U.S. will provide truly qualitative or “game-changing” weapons systems. There is also very little clarity on the scope of such aid. What is clear, however, is that this decision will likely embolden rather than intimidate Assad and his allies. If mismanaged, it could also influence the choices of other external actors like Russia and Iran. As both external camps seek to secure their preferred outcome, it is more likely to lead to more escalation and death in Syria, rather than any meaningful resolution of the conflict, or its underlying socioeconomic and political causes.


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