Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, head of the U.S. Central Command, testified March 5 at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the current situation in Syria is too complex to provide lethal aid to opposition forces. He noted that the rebels remain fractured, and said it is becoming increasingly clear that some of these factions are connected with al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda isn’t hiding its involvement in the fight against Assad. On March 11 the terrorist network’s branch in Iraq claimed responsibility for killing 51 Syrian soldiers and nine Iraqis in western Iraq. The killings took place March 4, after the Syrian troops crossed into Iraq to escape rebel fighters. The government troops were ambushed as they attempted to return to Syria.
History shows that if the U.S. arms go to anti-government forces in Syria today, those same forces could turn the weapons on America and its allies tomorrow.
As we saw in Afghanistan – when U.S. military aid helped Muslim fighters oust Soviet troops in 1989 – the same American weapons were later used against U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
During his first foreign trip in his new job, Secretary of State John Kerry announced Feb. 28 that the United States will provide the Syrian opposition with $60 million in non-military aid, including food and medical supplies. Although the U.S. has not committed to supplying weapons outright to Syrian rebels, Kerry made clear that he is confident that weapons being sent by other countries are going to moderate forces within the Syrian opposition. But how can he be sure?
Kerry’s offer of non-lethal aid came in the midst of renewed criticism of continued Russian arms sales to the Assad regime. In light of the devastating firepower aimed at Syrian civilians, some argue that the United States or its allies must arm the opposition to ensure a fair fight against Assad's far more powerful forces.
But to give the rebels a chance and to minimize the lopsidedness of Syrian air power, the opposition needs anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank missiles, as well as command and control systems and equipment, and tactical and strategic training. Unfortunately, these same weapons and equipment could pose serious dangers and security challenges if al-Qaeda and other terrorist and criminals were to get old of them.
Vetting the arms recipients and securing end-use assurances is difficult in the best of circumstances. In the fluid situation in Syria, it is almost impossible. There is no way to definitively assessing allegiances of insurgent fighters or who exactly would use any weapons America would supply to rebel forces.
It would also be easy for U.S. weapons sent to Syria to be transported to dangerous groups outside the country, just as arms from Libya made their way to al-Qaeda in Algeria and northern Mali after the overthrow of Libyan President Moammar Gaddafi.
Providing weapons to the Syrian opposition also prejudges an end to the Syrian conflict. No one can predict what the situation in Syria will be like in six months. Will the civil war continue? Will an anti-American regime take power? Even if we know who possesses American-provided weapons today, there is no way of ensuring which faction will acquire them in the future.
President Obama will continue to be confronted with pressure to arm the opposition in Syria. Secretary Kerry’s comments seem to signal an evolution in the administration’s views, but it remains to be seen whether the investment of $60 million in non-lethal aid is just the beginning of America’s assistance and whether military aid will follow.
Stohl is senior associate and Georgieff is an intern at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank that studies peace and security challenges around the world.