Shadow Government

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Time to back the French and British on arming the Syrian opposition

France and now Britain have recognized the Syrian opposition and are on the verge of sending "defensive" arms to the newly unified opposition. No doubt these are welcome developments from the perspective of those who wish to see Bashar al-Assad’s regime finally get tossed into the dustbin of history. Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that ...

Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images
Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images
Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images

France and now Britain have recognized the Syrian opposition and are on the verge of sending "defensive" arms to the newly unified opposition. No doubt these are welcome developments from the perspective of those who wish to see Bashar al-Assad's regime finally get tossed into the dustbin of history. Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that Assad will depart anytime soon, if at all. 

Moreover, it is unclear whether the Europeans are prepared even to supply anti-air and other heavier systems to the opposition unless Washington does so as well. As yet, however, there is no indication that the Obama administration is prepared to do so. 

The administration's caution is understandable -- up to a point. Syrian air defenses are far more capable and sophisticated than those NATO faced in Libya. The prospect for collateral damage -- that is, civilian casualties -- is greater as well. And the last thing Washington needs is another conflict against a Muslim state. Yet without successful suppression of Syria's air defenses, it will be exceedingly difficult to maintain the no-fly zone that many supporters of the opposition are urgently requesting. A no-fly zone therefore does not seem likely, nor should it be. 

France and now Britain have recognized the Syrian opposition and are on the verge of sending "defensive" arms to the newly unified opposition. No doubt these are welcome developments from the perspective of those who wish to see Bashar al-Assad’s regime finally get tossed into the dustbin of history. Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that Assad will depart anytime soon, if at all. 

Moreover, it is unclear whether the Europeans are prepared even to supply anti-air and other heavier systems to the opposition unless Washington does so as well. As yet, however, there is no indication that the Obama administration is prepared to do so. 

The administration’s caution is understandable — up to a point. Syrian air defenses are far more capable and sophisticated than those NATO faced in Libya. The prospect for collateral damage — that is, civilian casualties — is greater as well. And the last thing Washington needs is another conflict against a Muslim state. Yet without successful suppression of Syria’s air defenses, it will be exceedingly difficult to maintain the no-fly zone that many supporters of the opposition are urgently requesting. A no-fly zone therefore does not seem likely, nor should it be. 

On a separate but related track, it is noteworthy that, despite several attacks from across its border with Syria, Turkey has not tried to invoke Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which would commit member states to seek authority to go to war on behalf of a member under attack. The Turks are not sure what they want; in that regard they are no different from an Obama administration that has studiously avoided making any major commitments to the Syrian opposition. 

Given the very active support he is receiving from Iran, the assistance that Hezbollah is providing, the reluctance of the great Western powers to establish a no-fly zone, the distraction that is the latest flare-up between Israel and Hamas, Assad may well outlast his opponents for another year, if not longer. If he is to be forced out sooner, there will have to be a major effort to arm the opposition with offensive weapons, notably anti-air systems. It appears that Britain and France might do so, but they would have to work in tandem with the U.S. 

Not surprisingly, the administration worries that the transfer of these systems could result in their ultimately being used against Israel in particular. Yet the flow of these arms could be carefully monitored to prevent a repeat of the history of Stingers that originally were sent to the Afghan mujaheddin but then fell into the hands of terrorists.

The longer the Syrian civil war goes on, the more likely the entire Middle East will plunge into a prolonged period of instability. Now that the presidential contest is over, the administration needs to send arms to the rebels on an accelerated basis. There is simply no excuse for inaction. On the contrary, every effort must be made to get arms onto the hands of the opposition as soon as possible. If Assad survives, the real winner will be Iran, his biggest backer. That is hardly a prospect that the second Obama administration should be willing to contemplate for the near, medium or long term. 

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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