US aid to Syrian rebels will take time

Friday 22/05/2015
Uncertainty still rules

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.