- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
"We want weapons," Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba said during an appearance at the United States Institute of Peace Wednesday, his first public address in Washington, D.C.. "And we commit to keeping them in the right hands."
Jarba, the head of the Syrian National Coalition, was frank about the goals of his U.S. visit, during which he is expected to meet with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, in addition to other State Department officials. "We fight under difficult conditions, while Assad has jet fighters, missiles, rockets and gets the support of Iranian mercenaries," Jarba said, referring to Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. "We need effective, efficient weapons that would be in the right hands, the hands of professionals."
The Syrian National Coalition, nominally an umbrella organization for anti-Assad rebels and a potential government-in-waiting, is a deeply fractured body that consists of myriad rebel groups and scores of fighters whose allegiances may be more fluid than its leaders will admit. Many of those fighters maintain ties with al-Qaeda affiliate groups, and the White House fears that weapons bound for moderate rebels will instead end up in the hands of Islamist extremists. Jarba’s own legitimacy has been questioned by competing opposition groups who perceive him as "out of touch" and disconnected from the Syrians fighting and dying on the ground.
Three years into a civil war that has already claimed more than 150,000 lives, Assad continues to gain ground against the rebel forces while the opposition struggles to build a professional army. The United States quietly appears to have ramped up its military assistance — including providing some TOW anti-tank missiles — to moderate Syrian rebels but, according to Jarba, it’s not enough. As Foreign Policy reported late last month, the White House is also considering providing shoulder-fired missiles capable of downing Assad’s choppers and jets, but only if the CIA can figure out technological ways of ensuring they won’t be used by the Islamists. The two preferred options are fingerprint scanners and GPS systems that would effectively disable the weapons if they were taken out of a specific part of Syria.
Publicly, U.S. officials have been mum on the prospect of increasing military aid to Syria’s rebels, particularly as al Qaeda-affiliated foreign fighters continue wreaking havoc in Syria. In a largely symbolic show of support for the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the State Department announced on Monday that Coalition offices in Syria will now be considered "foreign missions," while non-lethal aid will increase by a paltry $27 million.
During his talk on Wednesday, Jarba thanked the United States for its political and humanitarian support, and affirmed his commitment to finding a "political solution" to the Syrian crisis. Such a solution, he said, would only be possible if the "balance of forces" shifts on the ground. He also made clear that any U.S. military assistance should come in the form of equipment and training, not soldiers.
"We do not want Americans to die in Syria as they died in Afghanistan and Iraq," he said. "We do not want a single foreign fighter in Syria. Every foreigner should leave syria."