Michael Weiss

Of Arms and MANPADS…

Is Obama about to run serious weapons into Syria, or he is posturing (again)?

Obama in the Cabinet Room in September 2013.

If the Obama administration is planning to run tide-turning weapons to the Syrian rebels, then Hadi al-Bahra requires more than words of encouragement to believe it’s true. “During this revolution, we learned the lesson that you cannot say ‘grapes’ until you have them in your basket,” al-Bahra told me from his headquarters in Istanbul, sounding about as tired I would be if I were in his position.


Al-Bahra is (or was) the Syrian National Coalition’s chief negotiator at the predictably fruitless and now indefinitely postponed Geneva II conference, which was designed to augur the post-Assad era and establish a “transitional government” for Syria. Instead, the still regnant Assad used it as yet another American-furnished opportunity to stall, lie, consolidate his gains on the battlefield, and even arrest the in-country family members of the Coalition’s negotiating team. Al-Bahra wasn’t surprised by any of it. “So long as the regime believes there’s a military solution, they will not act seriously on the political front. Russia and Iran are both not ready to press hard on them.”


Iran’s role


Does he think, as so many onlookers of Washington’s policymaking now do, that the reason Obama still refuses to militarily confront Assad is because he doesn’t want to jeopardize Tehran’s cooperation on the P5+1’s newly-inked interim nuclear deal? (Iran considers Syria one of its own provinces, and is now more or less controlling Assad’s war brief.) It certainly appears that way. “The US has to think strategically about its position in the world,” al-Bahra said. “Linking both issues together to make Iran better behave on the Syrian front is something the US could try to achieve. But doing the opposite: using Syria as a card to compromise with the [nuclear] negotiations would be very bad. The current stated position is that these two issues are separate.”


Russia’s defiance


Of course, it’s not just Iran that has benefited from Washington’s failure to creatively link foreign policy crises. Anne Patterson, the Assistant Secretary of State, admitted on March 26 that Russia has only increased the “quantity and quality” of arms supplies to Syria since Vladimir Putin brokered the chemical disarmament deal last September, and since Russia acceded to a UN Security Council resolution last month condemning the regime’s use of barrel bombs and insisting on access for humanitarian aid into the country. In particular, Moscow is running convoys of spare parts for tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters, from which so many of those devastating barrel bombs are still being dropped on civilians. “This is the point where I don’t understand the politics of the USA,” al-Bahra said. “There is a chance to reach a compromise using the Russian invasion of Crimea and linking it to the Syrian case. But the US treats each case distinctly.”


Even where Russia has ostensibly cooperated with the United States, it hasn’t. The UN’s humanitarian chief Valerie Amos recently found that a mere 6% of aid has been let into besieged areas since that resolution was passed; other human rights abuses, such as sexual assaults, also continue apace. “Of course, the regime has not done any of the things in Resolution 2139. They’re using air raids, barrel bombs, and they’re stealing medicine out of shipments intended for opposition areas and redistributing them to loyalist areas. A guy committing a crime on a daily basis against the Security Council, and against the will of the international community — and here you’re standing and doing nothing. The more you do nothing, the more Assad will resort to extreme action.”




Perhaps because it's spring again in the District of Confusion, there’s been a discernible thaw in rhetoric. Rumors are that the administration might itself be resorting to minimal or even moderate action on Syria. Following Obama’s much-scrutinized meeting last week with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, there has been renewed media speculation about the possibility of running man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADs, to vetted rebels in southern Syria.


The contingency that this president will ever authorize such a program is remote, but Riyadh apparently believes otherwise. According to a well-placed source close to the kingdom’s security apparatus, the Saudis are now convinced that the White House is warming to this option owing to a troika of risk mitigating conditions put forward by themselves. These are: Only a handful of MANPADs would enter the country; they’d have a remote deactivation mechanism to render them inoperable in the event that any went missing or fell into the hands of jihadists; the only rebels wielding them would be former Syrian expats who have been seconded by Western intelligence agencies and therefore “our men on the inside.” The Saudis think that by summer, a major rebel offensive will be in the offing in southern Syria.


Nevertheless, for al-Bahra, this is another case of not counting one’s grapes prematurely. “We know that the missiles are available now in Turkey and Jordan,” he said, “but they are still not with the right people, the fighters. The US has to give the green light for other countries to supply them, and so far it hasn’t.”


The prevalent fear remains that if Obama did consent to the running of surface-to-air missiles to the rebels, then the primary beneficiaries would be terrorists who could use such hardware to down commercial airliners in other countries. According to N.R. Jenzen-Jones, the director of Armament Research Services, an arms and munitions consultancy, the technological capability to track and disable MANPADs remotely does indeed exist: “It’s called controllable enabling, which is basically a chip-level feature that requires the missile to be enabled before it can be used. You can also password-code the device to allow it to be active for three days or whatever, the theory being that it’s not long enough for the missile to be trafficked out of a country or used against civilian aircraft.” Jenzen-Jones says he has it from an authoritative source that the US developed controllable enabling long after its mandate by US Congress as part of the 1988 Defense Appropriation Bill. The implementation lagged for years — until 9/11.


In any case, the fear of materiel in Syria being used by terrorists rather than against them strikes al-Bahra as misplaced. “The Free Syrian Army has already started fighting [the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham] and at the same time they’re fighting the regime. So they have two fronts. If the US is really serious about fighting terrorism, they should assist the FSA against ISIS. But keeping the same amount of military support as before when you have two fronts instead of one, it makes no sense.”


The “new” SMC


So let’s say Obama was inclined toward an about-face. There’s another problem he faces in any credible assistance package to the rebels at this late hours: where’s it going to go?


The Supreme Military Council, once seen as the West’s only clearinghouse for non-lethal aid distribution, is dead – or rather reconstituted with new commanders who are less familiar to Langley and thus less trusted. According to a Washington-based aid coordinator, “the US hasn't figured out yet that the old SMC is now defunct. There aren't any fighters left who answer to [former SMC chairman] Salim Idris or his men.”  This temporal disconnect was well illustrated in a recent yet unreported aid fiasco, the coordinator told me. A shipment of medical supplies that Washington had dispatched into Syria in late February was earmarked for civilian hospitals and certain fighting units. The cargo was first taken through the Turkish-Syrian border crossing near Bab al-Hawa, and then stored in a warehouse nominally belonging to the SMC. The problem? That warehouse was in fact only “rented” for a few days by the former logistics officers of Idris’ team, and all the US-purchased supplies were then doled out to fighters willy-nilly. So the question now becomes whether or not the “new” SMC, headed by General Abdullah Bashir, and more formally integrated with the civilian leadership of the Syrian National Coalition, will be recognized or adopted by the United States the way its predecessor had been. An influential contingent of the SMC consists of the Saudi-backed Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), with which the CIA has only begun to acquaint itself. (You can tell the spooks are getting cozier because David Ignatius recently wrote about the SRF in the Washington Post.)


On paper, at least, the reboot looks an improvement on the old version. There are four prerequisites for joining the new SMC’s command structure, I’m told. The first is that you must actually fight in Syria and command units which do (no more sitting around in Reyhanli cafes and Skyping your way through the war). The second is that you must not have any political or organized religious affiliation that would compromise your loyalty to the rebellion (here I suspect the Saudis’ not-too-subtle crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has reached the Syrian insurgency after all). The third is that you must be a defector from the Syrian military and therefore have professional soldiering experience (Obama has repeatedly maligned the rebels as “farmers and engineers” and thus not worth arming). The fourth is that you must have a clear stance on extremism.


It’s the fourth that’s bound to be the trickiest. 


On Wednesday, The Independent carried an interview with Jamal Maarouf, the leader of the SRF and a member of the new SMC. “It’s clear that I’m not fighting against Al-Qaeda,” Maarouf told the British broadsheet, referring not to the SRF’s archenemy ISIS but to Jabhat al-Nusra, the official arm of Al-Qaeda in Syria, seen to be more “pragmatic” and less draconian in its engagement with the local populace. The SRF, like every other nationalist or moderate insurgent group, has fought alongside Nusra in Yabroud, and even shared weapons with it. “This is a problem outside of Syria’s border, so it’s not our problem,” Maarouf said. “I don’t have a problem with anyone who fights against the regime inside Syria.”


Common, embarrassing and well-documented though such statements are coming from top rebel commanders, this latest intervention might not have the discernible impact on US policymaking the Independent seems to think it will. For one thing, rebels used to say the same about ISIS before they went to war with the Zarqawist footpads. For another, Maarouf told the opposite to Ignatius as recently as mid-March (the SRF had to expel both ISIS and Nusra, he said then), and Nusra’s own leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani singled out Maarouf and the SRF as "unbelievers" for their work in combating extremism.


At the more practical level, there is no denying that Nusra has been an integral component in the broader civil-war-within-a-civil-war that has raged for the past several months between the rebels and ISIS – a campaign that has coincided with the height of America’s permissiveness in allowing Gulf-bought weapons into Syria. Would such a tolerance of Nusra, then, weigh as heavily if missiles that were only carried by Western spies could be shut down from command centers in Amman or Incirlik crossed the Jordanian or Turkish borders? And does Maarouf’s suddenly laissez-faire disposition toward Al-Qaeda even matter since the chances remain slim to none that Barack Obama will authorize weapons that could actually win the war?

The August 2013 East Ghouta chemical attacks resulted in no US military response despite declarations of a "red line." (AFP photo)

"The Supreme Military Council, once seen as the West’s only clearinghouse for non-lethal aid distribution, is dead."

  • Beiruti

    I think Obama does not take any effective action in Syria out of fear that he may harden Iran on the Iranian nuclear talks. He senses a linkage, but does not know what it is or how to play it. If there is a linkage, then he can play Syria to gain advantages in the Nuclear talks. Instead, because he does not know, Obama fears and when he is afraid, then his fear induces his paralysis in Syria. Poor guy, poor Syrians.

    April 6, 2014

  • luther6

    On September 11, 2001, three thousand Americans were killed by Al Qaeda. Now Al Qaeda fights with the rebels in Syria. Michael Weiss seems to think that America should align itself with Al Qaeda to overthrow the Assad regime, which has never attacked America. Al Qaeda, incidentally, continues to murder and oppress Arab Christians and moderate Muslims in the region - yet we're supposed to be keen on the overthrow of Assad. What in God's name is wrong with these Western reporters? How is it that America's government could even entertain working with an Al Qaeda affiliate?

    April 6, 2014

  • kelley.sadler.18

    Great article. I hope you write a follow-up in 3-6 months for those of us who follow Syria quite closely.

    April 5, 2014