US aid to Syrian rebels will take time
DUBAI - The new alignment between the principal Arab powers and Turkey augurs well for the future of Syrian rebels. However, US support will always be crucial to break the current stalemate in favour of the rebels.
Arab leaders are convinced that victory for the Syrian rebels is within reach if there is the requisite military support. Newly energised Saudi leadership coupled with the trilateral reconciliation between Riyadh, Ankara and Doha has proven to be a watershed moment for the fight in Syria. Syrian rebels now have real momentum. Assad forces face serious levels of attrition, while Iranian Revolutionary Guard advisers and fighters have become increasingly overstretched.
The Obama administration has no stomach for a decisive military outcome in Syria. The train-and-equip programme for Syrian rebels has just begun in earnest following a delay of nearly a year since it was approved by the US Congress. The White House wants to ensure a deliberate and carefully thought-out process. Reluctance to get sucked into a proxy war coupled with worries about the possibilities of infiltration and “green-on-blue” shootings of US military trainers have figured prominently in the US policy calculus.
Nonetheless, the initiation of the US-led train-and-equip programme for Syrian rebels in partnership with Turkey and Arab states is an important first step and its significance should not be underestimated. US President Barack Obama is adamant on achieving a legacy-setting deal with Iran. He worked with his cabinet and military commanders to block all efforts to establish a no-fly zone in Syria, despite the desires of regional Arab leaders.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US Army General Martin Dempsey made the Obama administration’s case for sidestepping a no-fly zone commitment when he declared such an effort would be exceedingly difficult due to the Assad regime’s “dense” integrated air defence system. However, his assessment overstated Syria’s military capabilities. Recent events showed that the Damascus regime lacked the ability to provide for the air defence for the capital and his coastal cities as Israeli warplanes struck with impunity on multiple occasions.
Without the United States’ and Turkey’s direct involvement, Arab militaries lack the force projection capability to establish a limited Syrian no-fly zone. Moreover, Arab powers have their hands full with an air campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, which will require some time.
That said, the involvement of the American military in any form in support of rebel forces sets the stage for further wider role in the future. History offers a useful lesson here. The pacifist-inclined US president Jimmy Carter was the first to authorise the limited covert support of weapons to Afghan freedom fighters. It was not until President Ronald Reagan took office that the programme was significantly amplified in partnership with Arab states.
US Department of Defense programmes are notorious for expanding over time. The train-and-equip programme for Syrian rebels will most likely grow and Obama’s successor, whether Democrat or Republican, will re-evaluate the scope of US support.
Beyond the numbers of rebels trained and the amount of arms provided, a crucial component of the programme will be the long-term relationships forged between American military personnel and Syrian rebels. Politically, the development of military-to-military ties with the Americans will benefit the rebel cause over the years.
Even though neither the rebels nor the Arab allies are eager to wait for Washington, there is only so much they can do. The newly minted “Army of Conquest” coalition of Syrian rebel groups could not have made its recent gains in north-western Syria without quality US-facilitated weapons.
Recent experience proved the United States can provide the rebels with an effective qualitative edge on the battlefield. The successful provision of US-made TOW anti-tank guided missiles to the rebels exceeded expectations and played a major role in the latest rebel advances. This offers a useful precedent for supplying more advanced weapons and in greater quantities.
The Americans remain ambiguous on what type of combat support they will provide trained rebel forces when they confront the fighters of the Islamic State (ISIS). The trained rebels are supposed to fight only ISIS but the frontlines in Syria are fluid and amorphous.
The battlefield is likely to dramatically shift overnight if the United States accedes to the provision of third-party anti-aircraft missiles. Arab states have been working diligently with American operators to solve the dilemma of how to maintain positive control over portable air defence weaponry should they be supplied to rebels.
But the hard truth is that his innate hesitancy will prevail and Obama is unlikely sign an authorisation order for anti-aircraft weapon deliveries.
For now, the American “cavalry” is unlikely to show up in force. The Arab states and Syrian rebels are simply not willing to wait. The future of Syria remains in the balance.