Nicolas Revise, AFP
Last updated: 31 May, 2013

Arming Syrian rebels too risky for Washington

Despite welcoming the lifting of a European ban on arming Syrian rebels, Washington is unlikely to follow suit, fearing its weapons could fall into the hands of jihadists or fuel a proxy war with Russia.

President Barack Obama has long been under pressure from Republican lawmakers and even officials in his own administration to provide weapons to the Syrian opposition fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

But for now Obama is confining US support for the rebels to non-lethal aid and clinging to hope for a political settlement, with US and Russian brokered peace talks planned next month in Geneva.

“There is no appetite for intervening in Syria,” said Aram Nerguizian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“When it comes down to it, the United States does not want an acceleration of the war in terms of American and Western intervention.”

Obama would make the final decision on arming the rebels, but confusing messages are coming out of the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department about whether to take that step.

Advocates of arming the rebels hope to break the bloody stalemate in a conflict that has killed more than 94,000 people since March 2011 and threatens to spill across the region.

But the US administration says adding more arms to the conflict carries grave risks of its own, including the possibility that heavy weapons could fall into the hands of the Al-Nusra Front, a battle-hardened Al-Qaeda affiliate.

The former US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, warned this week that the United States “doesn’t know enough about Syria’s fractured opposition to intervene or arm.”

For months the Americans have been working with so-called moderate Syrian rebels, led by the Supreme Military Council and the loosely organized Free Syrian Army commanded by General Salem Idris.

But even if Washington were to supply arms directly to Idris, there’s no telling where they would end up after being carried into the fog of battle by the fractured and ever-shifting rebel groups that compose his forces.

Nerguizian draws parallels with the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war and the more recent wars in Libya and Iraq, where jihadists manned checkpoints and demanded a share of weapons or ammunition for passage.

Salman Shaikh, Director of the Brookings Doha Center, points to Afghanistan, where the United States armed Islamists battling the Soviet Union in the 1980s only to launch its own war against them after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Although Syria’s jihadists share the US goal of toppling Assad, Washington can hardly view them as allies given their broader and more radical ambitions, and has blacklisted the Al-Nusra Front as a terrorist group.

“These are Islamist elements that are militants who are going to destabilize the region,” Shaikh said.

Beyond the threat posed by Islamist groups, Washington also fears that arming the rebels would spur Russia and Iran to step up support for the Assad regime, drawing out the conflict and leading to even more casualties.

“By providing those kinds of lethal weapons they would be directly involved in a proxy war… in particular with the Russians,” who, like the Iranians, are a key source of support for Damascus, Shaikh said.

The lifting of the EU embargo was swiftly followed by Russia’s vow to deliver advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to the Syrian government, which has been a close military ally of Moscow for decades.

The United States has warned Russia against the arms delivery, but also recognizes it needs Moscow’s support for any kind of political settlement.

“At some point, if diplomacy fails, the US might (start) to arm certain factions in the country, in which case you’re just looking at a long proxy war which could last for years,” Nerguizian said. “That is the real risk.”