BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon – What kind of weapons, and when will they come?
Those are the questions rebels heading back to Syria and Syrian refugees languishing in Lebanon asked after learning the Obama administration is now prepared to arm the rebellion against President Bashar Assad.
Syrian rebels and refugees in makeshift camps peppering Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley said they welcome the White House’s decision but questioned whether the weapons supplied will be sophisticated enough and arrive in time to help them repel an expected offensive by Assad on the northern city of Aleppo.
Opposition activists are braced for a fresh deployment of thousands of militiamen from Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shia movement that has now committed to all-out backing of Assad. Hours after the Obama administration’s announcement Friday, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah vowed in a televised statement, “We will not change our position.”
Washington attributed the decision to arm rebels to a determination Assad had crossed a “red line” and used chemical weapons. But Assad’s gathering momentum was the more likely motivation for the change, analysts believe. For weeks, Syrian rebel leaders had warned Washington they were facing irreversible setbacks.
Rebels have long begged for shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, or MANPADS, capable of shooting down Syrian government warplanes and helicopters. They also want sophisticated anti-tank weaponry, more advanced than the Croatian-made weapons now being supplied by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
But rebels fear only light weapons may be forthcoming from Washington, which fears sending over heavy armaments that could wind up in the hands of the terrorist groups aligned with the rebels.
“Is this all going to be too little and too late to really help us?”asks Hany, a rebel fighter from Aleppo who declined to provide a family name. “If it is just light weapons, it is not enough for us, for the Syrian people. If we don’t get the heavy weaponry we need, then that is only going to add to our disgust over how we have been ignored for years, how the world has just watched while we suffered.”
Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, worries the U.S. arms supplies will be not be to shift the momentum of the fight.
“The proposed light arms and ammunition will be just enough to sustain the defensive capabilities of the opposition and may prevent an all-out defeat,” she said.
For the rebels, the failure of the West — and especially America — to supply the two-year-long rebellion with weapons earlier, and attempts by Washington to fashion a rebel political and military leadership to its liking, has bred a sense of distrust among many of the fractious insurgents from the more than 300 ill-coordinated and divisive brigades and units battling to oust Assad.
The news that Washington will pick and choose which rebel groups to supply is compounding the distrust.
“Are we meant to say to jihadists or some Islamists the Americans don’t like you, sorry we can’t fight with you anymore or we can’t share our guns even though you shared with us?” asked Abu Bakr, a rebel commander in Aleppo. “Do [the Americans] not realize that they will prompt further infighting in rebel ranks?”