The Obama administration says it’s considering providing arms to rebels fighting to bring down Syrian President Bashar Assad if the U.S. can confirm his forces did in fact use the debilitating nerve gas sarin in recent attacks. Coupled with news that Israel reportedly launched an airstrike at a target in Syria to prevent a shipment of missiles from reaching Hezbollah, these events could represent a game changer in the conflict-ravaged nation.
The ‘Moderate’ Opposition
The so-called Free Syrian Army is not a traditional army, but instead made up of many small battalions and brigades that have come together to fight Assad’s regime. According to Brig. Gen. Salim Idris, the rebel group’s chief of staff, it doesn’t operate like a traditional fighting force.
“I don’t like to say that we are working just like a regular army because the majority of the forces are civilians,” Idris tells NPR’s Kelly McEvers.
Idris would manage any military assistance the U.S. decides to provide. The U.S. and its allies believe he represents the so-called “moderate” fighters — those who want to topple the president and install a democratic government.
A senior Obama administration official told NPR the weapons the U.S. would most likely provide are shoulder-fired missiles, which could take down aircraft. That would be a good start, Idris says, but it would not be enough.
“We need other kinds of traditional weapons,” he says, “because the regime is supported by Russia and Iran, and they have many kinds of weapons and a lot of military units.”
Idris says he would like to see a full no-fly zone in Syria, but the U.S. supports only partial no-fly zones, where civilians would be protected and rebels could regroup. He says it wouldn’t be enough to protect the liberated areas.
“The regime has a very powerful air force,” he says, “and when we have only a no-fly zone in the north and the south, it will be not enough because they can [still] use chemical weapons and aircraft against our citizens.”
Idris says the regime is using Scud missiles and wants more pressure from allies to prevent the use of the Russian-made ballistics.
Putting Weapons In The Right Hands
If the U.S. does give weapons to the Free Syrian Army, there is also the danger of those weapons falling into the wrong hands. Hard-line Islamists that don’t answer to the group and are more in line with al-Qaida are also fighting Assad’s regime.
Idris says the Free Syrian Army doesn’t coordinate with factions that don’t fall under its command structure and that it doesn’t share weapons.
“They don’t like to share with us [either],” he says. “All of the members of the Supreme Military Council agreed … not to share anything with the extremist groups.”
He says the rebel army works hard to keep track of weapons and will continue to do so if the U.S. provides them.
“We are ready to make lists of the weapons and write down the serial numbers,” he says. “When the [regime falls] we are ready to give back all of the weapons.”
It remains to be seen whether Idris could hold his men and commanders on the ground to that.
Note: The audio at the top of this page also includes a piece on Syria-related kidnappings, as well as an interview with filmmaker Olly Lambert, whose documentary Syria Behind the Lines is currently available on Frontline PBS.