We Should Give Syrian Rebels 'Smart Guns' That Can't Be Turned On Us

A potential solution to the "what if the rebels give their arms to terrorists" issue.
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Free Syrian Army fighters during an operation in Aleppo's Salaheddine neighborhood on April 29, 2013. (Reuters)

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.

These modified-Stinger missiles could be used to target the Syrian Air Force and remove the military's largest advantage over the rebels. Assad's military has ruthlessly used jets to target civilian populations and rebel groups. Human Rights Watch has criticized Syria for utilizing "imprecise and inherently indiscriminate" bombs, such as cluster bombs, and hitting civilian targets, including hospitals. In fact, throughout the rebellion, the Syrian resistance has tried to conduct costly ground assaults on air bases because of the importance of air power to Assad's military. Without the ability to meaningfully confront Syrian air power, the resistance is left with little hope.

Skeptics will point to the prospect of enemies of the U.S. bypassing the technological safeguards. While this is always possible, technological mishaps are a concern with all weapons and not exclusive to this context. Moreover, even if the safeguards can be circumvented, it is unlikely that battle-hardened Islamists will have the technological capacity to re-activate the weapons. These weapons reaching the black market also shouldn't be a major concern, as the likelihood of failure will complicate the terrorists' ability to barter the weapons in an international trade. While there is no way to ensure with full confidence that the weapons will never be used against us, incorporating safeguard technology is most definitely an improvement over the status quo: handing over traditional weaponry.

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. By delivering a stronger tool to the moderate forces within the resistance, the armament program would help to bolster their position in the resistance and thereby increase U.S. influence in a post-Assad Syria. As Dennis Ross has noted, the Islamist groups have proven themselves in Syria because they have had weapons supplied to them from outside forces. And as we've seen elsewhere, the best-armed elements generally dominate once the regime falls. To bolster the position of the moderates, we need to ensure that they are receiving arms that allow them to take on a meaningful role in the conflict.

Certainly, there are no perfect options in Syria. But taking advantage of innovative technologies might be one of the best paths available to us.

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