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The Mideast

US debates arming Syrian opposition as defense strategy

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Jan. 27, 2012: Syrian army defectors stand guard on a rooftop to secure an anti-Syrian regime protest in the Deir Baghlaba area in Homs province, central Syria.

To arm or not arm? That is the question. The Syrian opposition is being crushed by forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad, any attempts at diplomatic pressure are being thwarted by Russia and China vetoing resolutions at the UN, and economic sanctions aren’t much use when a dictator seems to have decided it’s a case of kill or be killed. 

So what to do about Syria and the dictatorial Assad? Republican Sen. John McCain, an influential voice in foreign affairs as the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, believes we should think seriously about “arming the opposition.” The White House says that’s not an option being “considered” right now. Perhaps not actively considered, but it’s hard to believe it hasn’t been discussed at some pretty high levels.

And a lot of experts believe, like McCain, that in the wake of the complete failure of diplomacy, it’s a question that has to be reconsidered. Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer of the Center for Advanced Defense Studies believes we should use the model the Clinton White House used for getting weapons to the Bosnians, running so-called “black ops” to get weapons to the Syrians. It’s something the U.S. also did to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan after the 1979 invasion. 

“I'd look to engage/recruit proxies to run the arms into the Syrian resistance from member states of the Arab League,” said Shaffer, “much like we did using the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence agency and Army during the support of the Afghan resistance. Again, this is a known method of black ops the U.S. has done - we have folks around who could advise and put it together.”

Like Shaffer, Josef Olmert, a professor at the University of South Carolina (who formerly taught Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv, Hebrew, and Bar-Ilan universities) accepts that there are risks, not the least being control of who gets the weapons and how they are used. 

But Olmert believes that concern can be addressed. 

“Orderly delivery of arms from Turkey and Jordan will enable the west an effective measure of control over rebels activities,” he told me, while adding, “Nothing, I repeat, nothing can prevent chaos and huge, repeat huge, bloodshed when the final downfall happens, but closer contact with the rebels now will help mitigate the inevitable carnage.”

As for what kind of weapons, Olmert says the most urgent need is for anti-tank missiles as it is the tanks of the Syrian Army that are currently doing most to lay waste to the opposition and the cities in which they are strongest.

Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is more circumspect about the whole idea of sending weapons into Syria. He says arming the opposition can’t simply be dismissed, but needs to part of a well-considered overall strategy. 

“For me, it is not satisfactory to talk in isolation about arming the opposition or any other particular tactic,” Singh said. 

“What we truly require is a comprehensive strategy for aiding the Syrian people and compelling Assad to step down, and should consider all tools at our disposal which could support such a strategy," Singh continued. "We should not preemptively rule out options, nor should we fail to consider what will come after Assad in Syria and how we can help to shape it.”

And that last comment from Singh points to some of the biggest risks of arming the opposition: Who are they? What is their vision of Syria’s future? What will they do with those weapons if and when they defeat Assad and seize power? On top of that, there’s the risk of Arab backlash if a U.S. hand is seen behind the arming of any one group in Syria. And Iran might, according to Shaffer, step up its efforts to carry out terrorist attacks against U.S. targets overseas.

But the gathering view among the experts seems to be that with all else failing, and the slaughter of Syrian civilians continuing, arming the opposition may be one of the very few options left. It’s clearly not without risks, it’s understandable that it’s not something any nation, including the US, is rushing into. But, Olmert said, “The pros far outweigh the cons.” And Shaffer sums it up by arguing, “at this point it is our only real and best option.”

Jonathan Hunt currently serves as a New York-based chief correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC). Hunt joined the network in 2002 as an international correspondent based in Los Angeles.