In his press conference on Tuesday, President Obama acknowledged that Bashar al-Assad's forces deployed chemical weapons and said he would "have to rethink the range of options" to deal with the deteriorating situation in Syria. Later in the day, administration officials confirmed that "lethal weaponry" would be sent to the Syrian opposition, but it remains unclear what this entails.
One fear the Obama administration has had about arming Syria's rebels is that the arms might eventually be trafficked elsewhere. But throughout the ongoing debate, one option has remained largely overlooked: providing "smart gun" modified-Stinger missiles that would arm the rebels while minimizing the risks of those weapons being used to target us in the future. Effective safety mechanisms would prevent the missiles from falling into the wrong hands while boosting the moderates within the opposition and hastening the end of Assad's reign.
Safeguard technologies will not eliminate the risks of the Stingers falling into the wrong hands but they will tilt the scales in favor of the rebels while making the risks far more manageable.
The U.S. is currently providing the resistance with non-lethal aid, such as body armor and night-vision goggles. While certainly useful, there is a growing consensus, reflected in the recent remarks by administration officials, that supplying lethal assistance will be necessary to shift the balance in favor of the opposition. The obvious problem with providing traditional weaponry to the resistance is that those same weapons could be pointed at us down the line. This is a reasonable fear, based on our own experience in Afghanistan.
Thirty years ago, the CIA armed the Afghan mujahedeen with Stinger missiles to target Soviet planes and helicopters after the 1979 invasion. While the mission is widely credited with helping to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan -- and hastening the fall of the Kremlin -- the U.S. has had to worry for decades about unaccounted for Stingers that could be used to target civilian airliners or U.S. military personnel. With the presence of a number of extremist elements within the Syrian resistance, particularly the Al-Nusra Front aligned with Al Qaeda, we will have to live with the possibility that our weapons end up in the wrong hands even after taking the best precautions in selecting which rebels to arm.
To ensure that the rebels can attack the Syrian Air Force now without being able to use the weapons later against U.S. forces, we should focus on creative ways of limiting how and when the weapons are utilized. As with "smart gun" technology in the domestic market, safeguards can be placed on Stinger missiles to restrict their use and vastly minimize the collateral damage of arming the rebels. In effect, this technology would ensure that any weapon we give the resistance would be ineffective in the wrong hands. Anthony Cordesman, a former Defense Department official, has outlined a variety of potential options, including GPS-based limitations that would only allow the missile to be fired in Syria, installing batteries with expiring lifespans on the missile, or requiring a launch code that could be regularly changed.