Editor’s note: On Thursday, June 13, the White House announced that it had definitive proof of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons, and that it would begin arming the Syrian rebels in response. The Obama administration has said little about the military support it will provide, but early indications suggest the assistance will not include the heavy weapons that the Syrian opposition has requested.
On Friday, French President François Hollande defended his plan to supply weapons to Syrian rebels, as part of a British and French effort to lift the EU’s arms embargo. If Libya is any example, U.S. thinking may not be far behind — especially as the conflict’s death toll climbs above 70,000.
Clearly, the Obama administration is reluctant to flood the conflict with arms for fear that they could wind up in the hands of extremist groups such as the Nusra Front. But if Barack Obama does buckle under the pressure of Syria hawks, many of whom he personally hired, there are a range of powerful weapons that could potentially turn the tide in the rebels’ favor. Which ones? To find out, we talked to top arms expert Jeffrey White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute, and Chris Dougherty, research fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Weapon: Anti-aircraft weapons such as the 9K38 Igla — a Soviet-made, man-portable, infrared-homing surface-to-air missile.
Pros: In many areas of the country, rebels are getting creamed by the regime’s arsenal of Soviet- and Russian-made jets, the most advanced being Mig-29 Fulcrums. There are already plenty of MANPADS in the hands of Syrian rebels, but not in some of the most heavily targeted areas, White told Foreign Policy. “Down in Daraa province, we’re not seeing a lot of anti-aircraft activity, or in Damascus, which is important,” he explained. If the United States wanted to make a big splash, shipping surface-to-air missiles to Daraa province and Damascus via Jordan, where Syrian jets have strafed freely, could have a big impact. They would also be helpful in rebel-held areas like Aleppo that face frequent aerial bombardments.
Cons: Legitimate fears persist that dumping this type of powerful weaponry in the middle of an extremist hotbed could create serious blowback for the United States in ways one can’t easily anticipate. This is especially the case with some of the more sophisticated MANPADS such as the SA-24. As Popular Mechanics noted last year, these pack a powerful punch. “The SA-24 missiles, made in Russia, can shoot down an aircraft flying at 11,000 feet,” the magazine pointed out. Domestic airliners are particularly vulnerable. After 9/11, Congress poured money into methods of jamming SA-24s. But after 8 years with no success, the White House cut the program last year, meaning commercial airliners remain exposed.
Weapon: Tanks, such as T-62s, T-65s, or T-72s from Warsaw Pact countries.
Pros: Rebels are already operating all three types of tanks listed above, which they’ve captured from regime forces. Handing these off to a preferred rebel group would give those units a substantial firepower advantage over other rebel units, and open up opportunities to push back against the regime. Successful attacks by rebels’ armored vehicles against Syrian tanks have already been documented:
Cons: Besides the potential for devastating blowback, there’s also a tactical downside. Once you transition the rebels from light infantry forces to heavier forces, they are less nimble and become easier targets for conventional regime forces.
Weapon: Anti-tank guided missiles or rocket-propelled grenade launchers such as RPG 29s.
Pros: Very effective against T-72 tanks with reactive armor. Though some are in rebel hands, there aren’t many. “The regime relies very heavily on its armored fighting vehicles and the rebels simply don’t have enough of these systems,” said White. “Giving the rebels more anti-tank weapons would significantly cut into their ability to repel the regime.”
Cons: Unless you were living under a rock, you remember what happened last September, when extremists armed with rocket-propelled grenades stormed the U.S. compound in Benghazi, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and four others. Given that this occurred in the aftermath of the Libyan civil war, which saw a flood of foreign weapons enter the country, the parallels couldn’t be more relevant.
Weapon: Indirect fire weapons such as mortars: 122 mm and 120 mm guns.
Pros: Effective against the regime’s field artillery, which includes cannons, mortars, and rocket launchers. “Unless rebels get more indirect fire weapons, it’s really hard to get after the regime’s artillery,” said White. “Getting mortars would substantially increase rebel capability and address the disparity in firepower.”
Cons: As with the argument against rocket-propelled grenades, the downsides of these weapons getting into the wrong hands are significant.
Weapon: Guided mortar rounds, which are essentially mortar rounds that are deployed at a ballistic trajectory and use fins to guide them to a desired GPS coordinate.
Pros: The rounds would help the rebels hit fixed Syrian positions — including barracks, airfields, and roadblocks — with much more accuracy. “The rebels may now have some mortars, rockets, or recoilless rifles, but those unguided weapons depend on the skill of the user to hit a target,” Dougherty told FP. “Given the Assad regime’s air superiority and the likely low level of training possessed by the rebels, any successful long-range attacks with unguided weapons are probably the result of sheer, dumb luck.
Guided mortars would give the rebels the ability to hit a fixed target accurately and consistently — regardless of range.”
: There’s a high risk that such weapons could fall into the hands of U.S. foes, which could result in a high level of destruction. “The United States wouldn’t want to lose positive control over these weapons — one of them fired at a major tactical operations center in Afghanistan could kill a substantial number of personnel,” said Dougherty.
Weapon: Training and support from a Special Forces Operational Detachment deployed to Syria or a neighboring country.
: It’s not unheard of for U.S. special operations forces to say “humans are more important than hardware,” Dougherty notes. “This training and advice doesn’t need to mold the rebels into a conventional fighting force — it needs to make them the most effective guerrilla force they can be,” he said. “It may not be ‘sexy,’ but without proper training and advice, the rebels won’t be able to use advanced weapons systems properly, nor will they be likely to wield them to full strategic effect.”
Cons: These types of special forces units are still deployed in Afghanistan, so they’re in high demand. It also wouldn’t be a short deployment. “
Building trust with foreign partners takes persistent, long-term engagement,” said Dougherty.