U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told reporters on Thursday that he can imagine a day when the U.S. arms the Syrian opposition. “The president has never taken arms off the table,” Ford said. “But it has to be fit within a strategy of leading to a political solution and not where one side seeks to conquer the other militarily. Imagine it this way: how do you convince one side that is losing already to stop fighting when they think their very existence is at threat?”
Ford pointed to Libya as cautionary tale for those seeking to arm Syrians. “Libya is a case where the proliferation of arms has threatened the stability of the country moving forward,” Ford said. “The proliferation of weapons by themselves is not a strategy.”
Ford was speaking at a press conference on the relief efforts in Syria, organized by the International Relief and Development Agency, which highlighted the increasingly dire humanitarian situation in Syria. Aid groups say delivering assistance has become more difficult as the civil war has intensified and Bashar Assad’s corned regime has begun bombing hospitals and bakeries. “There are war crimes,” Ford said.
Since the beginning of the conflict 19 months ago, more than 30,000 people have been killed and a million people have been displaced. As winter approaches, the status of refugees spread across the Middle East from Egypt to Turkey is increasingly at risk, aid groups warn. The U.S. is the largest single humanitarian donor in the Syrian conflict.
Ford’s comments on the U.S. potentially arming Syria comes after a front page New York Times story reported that the Obama Administration’s policy is shifting toward potentially arming certain groups. Ford welcomed reports that Qatar has provided manpads, or portable air-defense systems, to the Syrian opposition enabling them for the first time to defend against Assad’s air power. A regime helicopter was shot down Tuesday outside Aleppo, reportedly by a manpad. The weapons “will certainly complicate the Syrian military’s ability to fight,” Ford said. “But they won’t get people fighting for Bashar Assad to stop fighting for Bashar Assad.”
Ford also warned that the dangerous presence of extremist groups in Syria complicates U.S. thinking about providing arms. “We certainly understand the Syrian people’s desire to defend themselves, but we certainly don’t want to give arms to extremists,” Ford said.
Despite the latests developments, Ford said the focus of the U.S. in Syria should remain diplomatic, even if the U.S. decides to arm certain opposition groups. “The question about arms then becomes: do they help the transition [post Assad]?” he said. “Or do they make it harder?”