Arming Syrian rebels: Obama’s tactic of limited impact and involvement

Obama knows that sending light arms to Syrian rebels to fight against Assad’s forces will not tip the power balance of the civil war. Photo: CBS Interactive Inc.

NEW YORK, June 20, 2013 — President Barack Obama’s controversial decision to give light arms to Syrian opposition groups has allowed him to continue his position of limited engagement in the conflict in Syria. Obama’s latest decision is a symbolic move of military intervention rather than an action that can change the balance of the war. 

The Obama Administration announced it will provide military aid after confirmed reports that Assad has used chemical weapons.  Yet, if Assad is attacking opposition groups with suspected sarin, a toxic nerve gas that shutdowns the respiratory system, these groups will find defending themselves difficult with using American light arms. Besides the chemical warfare, Assad’s anti-tank missiles and bomber jets already out-equip the rebels who recently loss 30 towns and villages to Assad. 

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There is concern that America’s involvement will only intensify the conflict and will provoke more outside interference. Iran reported that it plans to send 4,000 troops to defend the Assad regime, days after Obama’s arms announcement. Russian President Vladimir Putin also responded to the US by saying he would not rule out sending weapons.

The crisis has already escalated, and America is not the first nor the last country to become involved in the civil war. The growing number of 93,000 causalities and 1.5 million refugees since the March 2011 protests proves that the violence has increased over the past two years.  Iran and Russia are using the White House to veil their pass contributions to the war. 

Iran and its Hezbollah allies have built a force of 50,000 to support the Assad regime as of March according to Israel’s military intelligence. In May, Russia sent Assad a shipment of anti-aircraft S-300 rockets.

Nations who oppose the Syrian government, other than the US, may provide Syria’s insurgency with arms. Saudi Arabia already this week provided opposition groups with heavy weapons, Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles called “Konkurs”.  The European Union ended its arms embargo to rebels at the end of May.  This allows EU member states to decide for themselves to give opposition groups weapons.  France and Britain may send arms if the UN peace talks in Geneva fail to remove Assad from power.  Given the delay of the peace talks, which was supposed to be held this month, EU nations may not continue to wait for a diplomatic solution to emerge before sending weapons.

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Considering Obama’s actions along with the involvement of Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the EU, it is clear that America is not the driving force of a possible rise in violence nor peace in Syria.  The administration is sending arms to create an appearance that Obama is keeping his promise of taking action if Assad crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons. Technically and at the most minimum level, Obama is fulfilling his commitment by providing light arms.  Nevertheless, he has escaped criticism of misleading the world that America would take the lead in overthrowing Assad.

Compare the White House’s aid to the Syrian insurgency to US support in the 1980s Soviet Union’s invasion in Afghanistan where America played a significant role in ousting Soviet forces. To remove Assad from power, Obama’s main actions as of date are imposing economic sanctions and sending over $300 million in humanitarian assistance to Syria.  Although the amount of military assistance has yet to be announced, the light arms that will be provided is likely to be less than the $2 billion in weapons and money sent to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets.  US anti-aircraft weapons was included in the assistance to Afghanistan; however, Obama is not considering giving the rebels such weaponry at this time.

The strategy of the Obama administration is to appear invested in ending the Syrian conflict while contributing a minimal amount of political and military capital. The benefit is that the US will incur little responsibility in a conceivable rise in violence and avoid spending billions of dollars in another Middle East conflict.  A long term disadvantage of this plan is that Obama is discounting America’s influence as a peace and stability mediator in the region. 


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Tiffany Shorter

Tiffany provides foreign and economic analysis for Communities Digital News at The Washington Times. Her column called "EMEA Watch" focuses on events in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Tiffany is known for her political commentaries on U.S. issues which have been featured on BBC, CNN, BET, The Sean Hannity Show, CCTV AMERICA, Go Africa TV and Avui (Spain). She was also a regular guest on FOX News Live, a real-time online news program.

Tiffany recently completed her graduate studies at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.



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