A few weeks ago I argued the United States should not be arming Syrian rebels. This week the United States stepped up its aid to the rebels, but maintained the non-lethal nature of said aid. The rebels, unsurprisingly, are not happy about this. A spokesman for the Syrian National Council, Mohammad Sarmini, states:
“This has become embarrassing and degrading. The regime’s escalation has rendered even our unmet pleas foolish. We used to beg for antiaircraft missiles. What do you ask for to counter Scuds?”
The same article mentions that Gulf States are already in the process of providing rebels with small arms. We need to be clear about what the rebels are asking for. They are not asking for more AKs or ammunition for small arms, they are asking for advanced and dangerous weapons systems. Sarmini’s quote indicates a desire for weapons designed to counter Scuds and antiaircraft weapons. While it appears that Syrian rebels have managed to get their hands on a few Chinese-made FN-6 shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles, they are not in wide circulation as of yet. Regardless, there are serious issues with deciding to supply the rebels with this type of weaponry.
Man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) hold a particular danger for proliferation. MANPADS falling into the wrong hands would most emphatically not be desirable. One of the most famous uses of MANPADS was in 1994 when a plane carrying the leaders of Burundi and Rwanda was shot down – triggering the Rwandan genocide. Of course, not all attacks need lead to genocide, but there have been other instances of attacks on civilian airliners. For example, in 2002, Al Qaeda fired a few shots at an Israeli civilian aircraft in Kenya (they missed). Suffice it to say, a few well fired missiles at civilian airliners could have dramatic economic effects, not to mention the significant loss of life.
Sarmini’s mentioning of arms for countering Scuds is also problematic. Patriot missile systems, or something similar, are incredibly complex and it is very unlikely that, even were the rebels to receive them, they would be able to operate them. Even the Patriot systems in Turkey are operated by NATO troops, not Turkish forces. It is also highly unlikely the United States would send NATO troops into Syria to operate advanced anti-ballistic missile (ABM) technology, let alone directly giving them to the rebels. At that point, intervention would be necessary to at least protect the troops operating the weapons systems. An intervention in Syria is clearly not palatable for the United States.
The proliferation concerns here should not be downplayed. While they do not make up the majority of Syrian rebel forces, Jabhat Al Nusra is gaining strength. Some estimate them as making up around a quarter of rebel forces. The same report notes that this Al Qaeda-affiliated group, generally held to be a direct descendant of Al Qaeda in Iraq, has attempted to sponsor cross-border attacks in Jordan. The United States simply should not be giving advanced weapons systems like MANPADS or ABMs to rebels when potentially a quarter of those rebels are affiliated with Al Qaeda.
Small arms are already being taken care of by our allies in the region. Given that fact, it is better for the United States to focus on being ‘above the fray’ as much as possible so as to be able to produce a solution acceptable to all players. As described by my colleague Mr. Presto, siding fully with the rebels will make it much less likely the United States will be able to broker a deal with all sectors of Syrian society. So, sending small arms does not add to what is already being sent. This type of weaponry also presents serious proliferation concerns, especially if these arms fall into Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters or spread outside the borders of Syria. The more serious, advanced weapons systems being discussed above, ABMs and MANPADS, either also hold too great a danger of proliferation or are too complex to be usable in the shifting sands of Syria’s rebellion.
Added bonus for the week is a map, also linked to abvove, of MANPADS attacks in Africa:
Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.