Why the U.S. Isn’t Arming Syria’s Opposition – Yet

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Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

A woman walks through rubble from a building destroyed by shelling from forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in downtown Aleppo August 1, 2012.

If there was a sliding scale for American involvement in foreign conflicts, after 16 months of violence in Syria, the U.S. might just have reached the quarter mark between zero involvement and full-fledged war. “We’re moving at some sort of glacial pace” towards armed intervention, says Jeff White, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency who’s currently a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “First, you go in and assess the people you might want to work with… It seems to me that we’ve gotten through the assessing process and we kind of know who we want to work with but in terms of providing lethal assistance, we’re not there yet.”

(PHOTOS: Chaos and Killing: Inside Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)

Up until this point the only thing the U.S. has owned up to is providing humanitarian assistance and communications equipment. But a report from Reuter’s Mark Hosenball this week revealed that President Obama signed a secret order authorizing intelligence and covert support to groups seeking to oust Syrian strongman Bashar Assad. That so-called “finding” was only approved within the last month, sources say, and does not include lethal support. In other words, the U.S. won’t be sending in Seal Team Six to take down Assad any time soon, but it is training certain groups to handle and gather intelligence. White House spokesman Tommy Vietor had no comment on the matter.

(PHOTOS: The Syrian Arms Race)

The Free Syrian Army has long sought from the U.S. intelligence instead of arms, which they’re getting in abundance from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Though he couldn’t confirm that the FSA is now getting intelligence assistance, Brian Sayers, the FSA’s lobbyist in Washington, says that he’s focused on a broader spectrum of support. The FSA is working to register as a 501(c)3 non-profit so it can raise money and it’s pushing for gas masks in case Assad uses his stockpiles of chemical weapons. “If the U.S. was to relax the export license that would be wonderful because the U.S. has some very sophisticated weapons that could take out helicopters,” Sayers says. “But that’s not happening at this stage.”

The question of whether or not to arm the opposition occupied Senators from both sides of the aisle Wednesday in a hearing on the future of Syria. Though the three witnesses came from different experiential and ideological backgrounds, their conclusion was the same: the U.S. should long ago have started arming the Syrian rebels. “If we don’t do that very rapidly I fear that not only will we be losing some of the texture of what’s going on,” Andrew Tabler, author of In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria, told the committee,” but we’ll be allowing others to forge those relationships, sometimes our allies but also our enemies.”

(MORE: Circling the Wagons on Syria)

There are huge risks in arming the FSA. Some weapons could wind up in the hands of al-Qaeda, whose presence in Syria is growing as the war drags on. And the weapons would almost certainly be used by some Sunnis – 70% of Syrians are Sunni, and the FSA is largely Sunni as well — to slaughter Alawites, the minority Shia sect that has ruled Syria for more than 40 years. But former Ambassador Martin Indyk argued to the committee that the good would outweigh the bad. “As a general principal I think we need to be careful of not falling into the trap of Jihadist boogey men. As our former allies like [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak used to use them to convince us not to do the right thing,” he said. “In order to shape the outcome in Syria we have to be involved in what’s going on on the ground.”

The U.S. will have influence with whatever government is formed in the wake of Assad’s departure – assuredly more influence than Russia, which is stubbornly supporting Assad. And there are many who argue the current strategy is working just fine. For now, providing the rebels with intelligence will earn some good will. But, if the Assad regime is strengthening again and the violence escalates, so too will the pressure for the U.S. to provide advanced weapons that can take down tanks and helicopters. “What’s more important right now for the United States than drafting [post-Assad] plans is forging relationships with the next leaders of Syria,” former Ambassador James Dobbins, who’s now with the Rand Corporation, told the committee. “It would be a great mistake to let the emerging Syrian leadership believe that al-Qaeda did more to help them prevail than the United States.”

MORE: Syrian Paradox: The Regime Gets Stronger, Even as It Loses Its Grip

21 comments
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boltusain

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dimukh
dimukh

USA is not going to repeat the same mistake after experiencing the scenario in Afghanistan where the presence of Russia was driven out by the rebel fighters hugely armed by it. America has had enough in its involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq and does not want to invite any new disaster  impacting its gasping economy. Changing color of Arab Uprising has also cast a negative picture in this respect.

Freedom
Freedom

Most of the Free Syrian Army weapons and ammunition are supplied by the 8 million strong Syrians in the Diaspora and by captured arms and supplies from the regular army.   All of these weapons are Russian made.  If the west or the US was supplying the FSA with arms, Assad would have gone long time ago.  The west interest is to prolong the war in Syria.  In Libya, the interest was to preserve the oil fields.   BUT no don't let the fact stand in the way of a good story and let us hand over all the credit for the revolution against the dictator to the US?  Obama did absolutely NOTHING except empty words for the Syrians.

drinkeroftherye
drinkeroftherye

Our strong, warrior President has been leading an amazing deception campaign.  First he has Hillary discussing on Face the Nation how Assad is really a reformer.  Then appears to lead from behind while working with the UN and pleading with Putin, all the while he's establishing an intelligence "finding," permitting the CIA and other U.S. agencies to provide support to help the rebels.  No doubt they have used these months developing a potential Kill List for Obama to choose from. Assad is probably hearing drones in his sleep now. FORWARD march.

Palerider1957
Palerider1957

Oh, COME ON Time!!

EVERYBODY knows that the U.S. and NATO (which is mainly financed by the U.S.) has been supporting the islamic rebels in Syria.

This is already ESTABLISHED FACT, yet you wish to once again print nothing but BOLD FACED LIES.

No wonder Time is irrelevant!

carlloeber
carlloeber

The US has not armed these heroic people because President Obama is a coward .. and maybe he also chooses "stability" like the bosses in the Kremlin whom he likes to obey ..   I have been to Aleppo and never met a kinder people .. the abandonment of them by President Obama for 456 days is shameful, disgusting and despicable ..   he is not worthy to lead the home of the free and the brave ..

Palerider1957
Palerider1957

 "Heroic"? Really? were the "rebels" in Egypt heroic? Were the rebels in Libya, Yemen, Qatar, Nigeria, Sudan, "heroic"?

If so, then you are calling ISLAMIC TERRORISTS and Al Qaeda fighters heroic.

Just look at what happened in each of these countries. Islamic States! And soon, Syria will also be an islamic state.

Yeah, real heroic!

Paul Dirks
Paul Dirks

I knew it wouldn't be long before someone demonstrated the problem. If you go around thinking that ALL MUSLIMS ARE EVIL then it's pretty hard to actually choose up sides in the Middle East. You just have to content yourself with having 1.6 BILLION ENEMIES!!!!!

6sickofidiocy9
6sickofidiocy9

Have we (the U.S.) "...shaped the outcome" in Egypt?  Libya?  

prestalex
prestalex

If Assad is able to remain in power that empowers Iran to continue and expand its influence into Syria and Lebanon. The US certainly does not want this outcome. Since the entire world already believes that the US is covertly supplying arms to the "rebels" then we should just go ahead and do it.

By the way, why can't our weapons industry develop built-in obsolescence into the arms that we supply to these fighters? That way, once we determine that the weapons are being misused (if it comes to that), we simply flip the switch and viola! they no longer fuction.

Paul Dirks
Paul Dirks

That would be because using new weapons to disable the old ones results in more robust sales.

Tohmsa Hatrman
Tohmsa Hatrman

 So the arms for the rebels from Turkey and Israel  are not indirectly supplied by the U.S.? That is hopelessly naive, I think.

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Paul Dirks
Paul Dirks

Call Michele Bachmann. She'll know what to do!

gysgt213
gysgt213

Serious people think the thing that will fix the middle east and Syria in particular is more weapons.

bobell
bobell

Are these the same serious people as Paul Krugman's Very Serious People who just know that inflation is a greater risk than deflation and that austerity is the only solution?  We could use a few less of those.

DeborahSmythe
DeborahSmythe

The international efforts to punish the al-Assad

regime have been minimal, largely because the SAR possesses very little in the

way of economic output that is of interest to the outside world.  Nearly a year ago, Secretary of State Clinton

advised countries that were still buying Syria's oil and natural gas to

"get on the right side of history"; while the sentiment was interesting,

as shown in this article, Syria produces a volume of hydrocarbons that is

completely irrelevant to the world's economy:

 

http://viableopposition.blogsp...

polnick
polnick

Freedom to a true Muslim means an open path to the Mosque.  There shall be no leader but Allah; the will of the people will be expressed by Sharia Law. Satanic rulers must be removed; Islamic anarchy will become the holy order.