April 15, 2014

American arms to Syria? Too little, too late?

BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missile

At least two videos posted on YouTube show Syrian rebels firing U.S.-manufactured TOW missiles at Syrian army tanks. This not only represents a quantum leap in the rebels' capability to engage the Syrian army's Russian-made T-72 tanks and other armored vehicles, it also indicates a decision on the part of whoever supplied the missiles to the rebels to provide more effective weaponry.

Up until the last summer, the rebels were using Russian-manufactured anti-tank weapons (AT-3, AT-5, AT-13 and AT-14) captured from the Syrian army. Starting in June of 2103, we started seeing videos of the rebels using - effectively - the Chinese-manufactured HJ-8 Red Arrow. The Red Arrow is not in the Syrian army inventory, so obviously these have been supplied by the rebels' foreign supporters, most likely Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Now we see the American-made state-of-the-art TOW in the hands of the rebels.

President Obama has been under pressure for over a year by Gulf Arab allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar to provide man-portable air defense systems, or "MANPADS," and anti-tank missiles (such as the TOW) to the rebels. These weapons systems are critical for the lightly-armed rebels to fight the relatively well-equipped Syrian armed forces. While the Syrians are no match for Western or Israeli militaries, they possess a large number of Russian tanks, armored fighting vehicles, artillery, rockets and surface-to-surface missiles, backed by hundreds of fighter-bombers and attack/assault helicopters - all of which have been used on the rebels.

Last August, the regime of President Bashar al-Asad even employed chemical weapons against rebel-held areas in the suburbs of Damascus, firing rockets carrying warheads filled with the nerve agent Sarin. See my articles on that event: Syrian Chemical Weapons Strikes - Random Attacks or Viable Military Targets? and Syria: UN report does not blame the regime for chemical weapons use - really?.

The Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons forced President Obama reluctantly into action - he had earlier stated that the movement of chemical weapons or their use constituted a "red line" that would result in consequences. The American threat to employ military force resulted in a Syrian agreement to rid itself of chemical weapons. That is a good thing, however, we immediately saw Syrian Air Force cargo planes making a number of flights to Iran - I wonder what was on those aircraft. I digress...

The presence of the US-manufactured TOW may represent a compromise on the part of the United States. The Obama Administration is reluctant to provide MANPADS to the rebels for fear that they might end up in the hands of Islamist jihadists also fighting in Syria, rather than the group the United States has opted to support, the secular Free Syrian Army.

Every time someone suggest MANPADS, both State and DOD officials remember the problems that arose years after the CIA provided the extremely-capable American-made Stinger MANPADS to the Afghan mujahidin. The missiles later showed up in the hands of the Iranians, thanks to our erstwhile allies, the Pakistani Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (yes, the same intelligence officers who claim not to have known that Usamah bin Ladin was living right under their noses).

Earlier this year, President Obama met with Saudi King 'Abdullah to discuss Syria. After the meeting, the President's deputy national security advisor reiterated the administration's concerns over supplying MANPADS to the rebels, but made no mention of anti-tank weapons. This comes just after the disclosure that the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) took delivery of almost 16,000 TOW missiles late last year. The SANG is a force of about 100,000 men (organized into eight brigades) separate from the Ministry of Defense and Aviation structure and is a counterbalance to the Royal Saudi Land Forces.

Coincidence? Maybe not.

Let's look at this. That is a huge quantity of TOW missiles for that size force and for the potential threats the Saudis may face in the region. If you combine the armies of Israel, Iran and Iraq, you have a total of about 8,000 tanks. Even if you double that to account for armored fighting vehicles, acquiring 15,000 TOW missiles for the SANG seems a bit high. That does not include the well over 20,000 TOWs in the Saudi Land Forces inventory. Now we have TOW missiles showing up in Syria - it just seems too convenient.

For the record, let me state I am in favor of supplying the secular opposition forces in Syria with the money, weapons and training that they need to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Asad - I have always been in favor of the removal of the Ba'th Party government. We had an opportunity to do just that in 2012 and failed to do so.

In the aftermath of the beginning of the "Arab Spring" in early 2011 and the Syrian regime's brutal suppression of demonstrations in the southern Syrian city of Dara', hundreds of military officers defected from the Syrian armed force and began the resistance under the banner of the secular Free Syria Army. Although they had the military training, they did not have the weapons required to effectively fight the Syrian military - and thus turned to the outside world for assistance. Although they did receive some materiel support from the Saudis, Qataris and Turks, the United States and its western allies provided only small amounts of non-lethal aid.

The assistance was not enough. The deteriorating military situation called for desperate action - when various al-Qa'idah affiliated Islamist groups offered to bring fighters and weapons into Syria, the FSA reluctantly agreed. Unfortunately, they also brought their own agenda, that being to remove the al-Asad regime and replace it with an Islamic state. There have been clashes between rival Islamist groups, and between the FSA and the Islamists as well. This internal fighting has allowed the Syrian armed forces to regain the upper hand, from almost being defeated in 2012 to now systematically reasserting control over large areas of the country formerly controlled by the opposition.

It may be too late to help the rebels overthrow the regime. It is certainly too late to do it without the Islamists in the picture. Should the rebels be successful, the next fight will be between the secularists and the Islamists.

Had we been proactive in 2011 and backed up our rhetoric that al-Asad had to go with the wherewithal to effect change, we might have actually been able to change the course of the Middle East. (More on that later.) I am afraid it may be too late.