The White House is considering sending over-the-shoulder anti-aircraft missile launchers to the Syrian opposition, Time reports. The move, which could significantly turn the nation’s civil war in the rebels’ favor, comes as Bashar al-Assad’s government announces presidential elections in June.
According to Time’s Michael Crowley, the United States government, which has aided the Syrian opposition in the past, is considering the possibility of sending “manpads,” surface-to-air missiles, to rebels fighting Assad’s regime. The manpads, he notes, are capable of shooting aircraft out of the sky, which would make them both extremely useful in fighting the Syrian Air Force and extremely attractive to terrorists who would wish to use them to take down commercial airliners.
As Crowley highlights, the Syrian opposition began as a conglomerate of Syrian middle class folks and political activists who yearned for a freer society after decades of rule under Assad and his father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad. Currently, however, “Syria’s rebel forces are now dominated by radical Islamists, some of whom recently overran headquarters used by a moderate faction and looted weapons.” The introduction of radical Islamists from across the world–many from Western countries–to the head of the Syrian opposition would make manpads a significant risk to propagate in that area of the world.
According to officials speaking to Crowley, President Obama is only willing to send these weapons “if they can gain far more confidence in measures to control and monitor the weapons.” American military officials are looking into GPS tracking or other similar technologies to maintain control of the weapons once out of the hands of Americans, but without such safeguards, it is not expected that the United States government would risk putting such weapons into the hands of potential terrorists. On the other hand, the lack of equipment to battle Assad’s aircraft makes it close to impossible for the rebels to overtake the Syrian military.
This would not be the first shipment of weapons from the United States to Syria. The New York Times reports that Syrian rebels published videos online where they are visibly using Western-made weapons against Syrian army tanks.
One rebel leader confirmed to the Times via telephone that the group had received “modest numbers” of new weapons from Western countries, which he described as “friendly states.” He emphasized that this is the “first time” the group has received such a shipment.
As the war rages on, Assad’s government prepares for a presidential election that opposition leaders are calling a “farce,” despite their announcement Monday. The elections are constitutionally required to occur within 30 to 90 days of Assad’s last official day in power in June, but the Syrian leader is expected to run for reelection. Many note that the rules to place oneself on the ballot prevent opposition members from running for president, as they must have a critical mass of support from the legislature for their names to appear.
The election also comes at a time in which both sides of the Syrian civil war are accusing each other of using new chemical weapons. This time, the chemical weapon in question is chlorine gas. Opposition groups have posted videos online of what they claim to be victims of chlorine gas attacks by the government. The Assad regime has denied the accusation, instead claiming it is the opposition who, in desperate times, has resorted to chemical weapons. International groups have yet to confirm where the gas has come from or even whether the gas was used, but a number of nations have received intelligence that chlorine gas is, in fact, in use in Syria.