Syrian Arms Race: The Clock is Ticking

by Wayne White

Until now, most foreign military assets flowing into Syria have come from Russia, Iran, or Iran’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. Arab and Western military aid to the rebels has been far less: lower in volume, composed of lighter weapons, and somewhat erratic. Now that Washington has tipped its hand, its foreign rivals backing the Assad regime can be expected to ramp up their assistance, hoping the regime can increase the pace of its military operations. Since military aid for the regime has been flowing through established channels, the impact of stepping up these deliveries could be felt well before the US can augment markedly its assistance to the rebels. To prevent the Syrian balance of power from potentially shifting further in favor of Damascus, the Obama administration will have to act very quickly to establish a viable pipeline. Tragically, either way, levels of overall violence are likely to escalate noticeably in this increasingly brutal, sectarian conflict.

To enhance the regime’s advantage as much as possible before the full weight of US-related assistance can be brought to bear, both Iran and Russia have the convenience of flying aid directly into Damascus International Airport. Continued chatter about possible limited US no-fly zones in either the south or north that would squeeze the regime’s air power advantage is yet another incentive for this grouping to pull out all the stops in bulking up and energizing the regime’s war effort as quickly as possible. The US decision to leave a number of combat aircraft and related assets behind in Jordan after an exercise has fed such concerns.

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared in response to Washington’s Syrian gambit that Hezbollah would fight in Syria “wherever it was needed”, guided by the “requirements of the (Syrian) battlefield.” This statement seemed to put aside hopes that Hezbollah combatants might restrict their involvement to anti-rebel Syrian military operations near the Lebanese border close to Hezbollah’s home turf, as they did in and around Qusair.

Despite Friday’s White House assertion that its decision was “already finalized,” otherwise somewhat hazy signals emanating from the administration on precisely what it intends to do suggest a policy-change was announced prior to complete agreement on all aspects of the US assistance package. There have been no indications that key US allies most concerned about Syria, like Great Britain and France, were consulted in advance in any detail. If outside impressions of lingering indecision regarding certain aspects of the policy are accurate, and the US revealed its intent to act before finishing the planning, that could prove very costly on the ground for Syria’s rebels. While the American statements have angered and alarmed the Assad regime and its allies, desperately needed concrete assistance for the rebels could be weeks away (and perhaps less than expected).

Supplying the Syrian rebels also could be more difficult, whether from Turkey or Jordan, if the regime succeeds in retaking some additional ground. Rebel holdings within the country are less continuous than they were only six weeks ago. By contrast, fewer regime forces are isolated and are now able to enjoy at least some support from Damascus and other resupply hubs. Any additional regime gains in the north (where its forces began attacking rebel positions in Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, last Friday), or the extreme south, would be especially disruptive to rebel connections with opposition assets across borders or among different rebel units within Syria in need of munitions.

Moreover, rebel holdings inside Syria are comprised of a bewildering patchwork of different factions, a situation likely to compromise US and any related allied-efforts to provide arms selectively to so-called “vetted” rebels. In many areas, such munitions would have to traverse zones held by extremist groups likely to block deliveries to which they have been barred or, amidst realities on the ground outside American control, extract a transit fee in the form of a portion of the munitions for themselves–eroding Washington’s aim to keep its shipments out of the hands of such groups.

And although rebel combatant groups of different stripes have tended to hoard their own supplies, relatively moderate rebels might share some of what they have acquired from the US with militants fighting close by in the interest of mutual survival when desperate in the face of severe regime pressure in combat scenarios. All these possibilities underscore the weakest link in the administration’s goal of keeping arms out of the hands of militants: once munitions are deep inside Syria, their control is bound to be iffy in difficult circumstances as well as in different sectors.

One thing is clear: making more weapons available will intensify the violence. Syrian government and Hezbollah forces will fight hard not to give up the initiative they have seized of late in some key areas. When and if rebels receive new arms and more plentiful ammunition, their resistance will stiffen. Then, if regime advances can be halted, the rebels will try to resume their own offensive operations. So, for a while, the result is likely to be a seesaw struggle, possibly producing more broadly a bloody tactical stalemate.

As for the hope of talks between the regime and the opposition sponsored by the international community, both warring parties might well avoid serious diplomatic engagement until their military positions inside Syria clarify to some extent. This could take many months, with each seeking greater advantage–or, to crush the other. Meanwhile, President Obama plans to discuss his recent decision with world leaders at the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland beginning today, but the US move reportedly is controversial even among British politicians. Reflecting Moscow’s ire after Washington upped the ante so boldly, Russian President Vladimir Putin, emerging from a Sunday meeting with UK Prime Minister David Cameron in London, scornfully characterized the Syrian rebels as brutish “cannibals”.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.