Why Arming the Rebels Isn't Enough

We need to dismantle Assad's air capability to really give the opposition a leg up.

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Fighters from the Free Syrian Army's Tahrir al Sham brigade fire back at Syrian army during heavy fighting in the Mleha suburb of Damascus on January 26, 2013. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

Yesterday the Obama administration disclosed that the regime of Bashar al-Assad has in fact used chemical weapons repeatedly against Syrian rebels (and civilians) "on a small scale" and, at least according to unnamed officials, this has led the president to authorize the supply of weapons to vetted opposition forces. For the time being, according to the New York Times citing unnamed officials, "small arms and ammunition" is all on that's on offer, although there's a possibility of furnishing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with anti-tank munitions in the future. Questions as to timescale and quantity of lethal material were left open, though here it should be noted that even the majority of the "non-lethal" aid promised months ago by Secretary of State John Kerry -- which did not include body armor or night-vision goggles -- has yet to reach the FSA.

Thus far, the debate as to whether or not to arm the rebels has suffered from two major flaws. The first is that even the most hawkish interventionists do not advocate sending anti-aircraft missiles to anti-Assad fighters, despite the fact this is the clearly the weapon most needed in order to shift the strategic balance in Syria. The second flaw is that, as the U.S. weighs its supply options to the opposition, it is paying too little attention to how the Assad regime is itself being armed and resupplied. Any swift and decisive decision to materially aid the Free Syrian Army will necessarily include degrading or destroying the runways and infrastructure of Syria's military airbases and commercial airports.

The fact is, Assad's warplanes and helicopters aren't just bombing rebel strongholds, civilian homes and bakeries, they're also being used for domestic and international resupply efforts. Whenever the regime wants to bolster its conventional military presence in restive areas in the north or northwest of Syria, it dispatches reinforcements of crack troops via air transport. (Ground transport is still dangerous for Damascus given the supply routes now controlled by the rebels).

As for the importation of material assistance from abroad, weapons, money, and personnel are also coming in from Russia and Iran mainly via air. According to Reuters, "tons" of military equipment is being flown into Syria daily from Iran, through Iraqi airspace, despite repeated State Department demarches to Baghdad. Last year, a Syrian Air Ilyushin-76 plane flew made numerous flights from around Moscow to Tehran to Damascus, delivering hardware to Assad including refurbished Mi-25 Russian attack helicopters. The Kremlin has also been printing and flying in large consignments of Syrian banknotes to help keep the regime's faltering economy afloat during the crisis.

Remarkably, Iran is not only dispatching "advisors" from its elite Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) to Syria but also its Ground Force personnel, which are rarely deployed abroad, to oversee the creation and training of a consortium of pro-Assad sectarian militia groups made up of Syrians, Iraqis, Lebanese and even Gulf Arabs, some of whom are first flown to Tehran for training, then flown back into Syria. The project as a whole, which envisages well over 100,000 guerrilla loyalists of Damascus, is said to be named for IRGC-QF Commander Major General Qassem Soleimani, the person in charge of its on-the-ground implementation. These militias consist of both Syrian and foreign militants, and they stand to inherit the bulk of the Syrian Army's battlefield responsibilities. One of them, the National Defense Force, played a lead role alongside Hezbollah in pushing the rebels out of the strategically vital city of Qusayr last week.

Rebel commanders have told us that Iranian militia groups are currently operating in parts of Aleppo in Shia-predominant communities south or southeast of the town of al-Safir, where one of Assad's chemical weapons facilities is located. This is unique in that it is not Iraqi or Lebanese militia groups sponsored by Iran, but actual Iranian militia groups intent on securing the regime's WMD stockpiles. Of particular interest -- and concern -- is that the IRGC-GF personnel deployed to Syria tend to hail from provincial units that face tribal and ethnic unrest in Iran, such as West Azerbaijan and Fars, further indicating that Tehran now intends to fashion the regime's counterinsurgency strategy along strictly sectarian lines.

Grounding the Syrian Air Force would therefore not only provide desperately needed humanitarian relief but it would strategically cripple the regime, which cannot continue to fight the rebels without external support.

This is why for months Gen. Salim Idris, the head of the Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army, has been begging President Obama for MANPADs, or man-portable air-defense systems, that are capable of neutralizing the regime's air war and air transport capability. "This is a top priority for us -- stopping the aerial bombardment but also the importation of weapons and military personnel from Russia and Iran," Idris said in a recent meeting. Yet even the draft bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), which quickly advanced through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month, expressly rules out the provision of shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles to Idris' men. The fear is that even a tightly-controlled distribution and tracking mechanism will not prevent such hardware from falling out of the hands of Idris' heavily vetted rebels and into the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, or other Salafist-jihadist groups. The image of Osama Bin Laden toting Stinger missiles in post-Soviet Afghanistan looms large.

However, in the absence of sending MANPADs into Syria, the U.S. can still take out Assad's air capability working in concert with allied powers, including Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Contrary to conventional wisdom, this doesn't necessarily require a full-scale no-fly zone a la Libya. It can be accomplished using stand-off systems; that is, using warplanes firing missiles from Turkish, Jordanian or Lebanese airspace, or using cruise missiles launched from warships in the Mediterranean.

In the last six months, the Israeli Air Force has demonstrated how precisely it can hit targets even deep within the heart of the lion's den, in fortified positions in Damascus. Syria's air defenses were rendered ineffective using Israeli Air Force (IAF) radar-jamming technology that the U.S. certainly possesses. According to reports, the IAF fighter jets never had to enter Syrian airspace in any of the three sorties it's waged since the Syrian conflict began. In the last one, according to IAF-released satellite footage, a warehouse full of Iranian-made rockets intended for Hezbollah was powdered just feet away from the barracks of the Fourth Armored Division, one of the regime's two praetorian divisions. Hitting runways from outside Syrian airspace is equally feasible. Indeed, "limited" no-fly zone contingency plans being drawn up by the Pentagon will rely heavily on stand-off systems in Jordan and would not, as the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, "require the destruction of Syrian antiaircraft batteries."

If his planes have nowhere to land or take off from, then Assad would be forced to depend for resupplies on cargo vessels (which take longer to arrive) and on border-crossings into Syria from Iraq or Lebanon. The five border-crossings from Iraq have been interdicted repeatedly by the rebels and are highly insecure. At this point, the only reliable crossing left is through al-Walid. Yet counting on supply lines through Sunni-dominated Anbar province where they are susceptible to attack is less than ideal for the regime.

As Iran effectively takes control of Assad's defense establishment, it will depend more and more on unobstructed air transport for training guerrillas in Tehran and returning them for battle in Syria. Eliminating the flow of traffic in men and materiel would thus not only severely hinder Assad's chances for survival but also disrupt the mullahs' takeover of the Levant -- something that represents a strategic threat to the region and the worst of all outcomes for the Syrian people.