x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Reports of rebels with ‘tank-busters’ raises questions of US role in Syria

The videos appeared online this week amid deep divisions between John Kerry’s State Department and the Pentagon over how much more the US should involve itself militarily in the Syrian civil war.

New York // Videos of western-backed Syrian rebels using sophisticated anti-tank missiles indicate that Washington might have signed off on heavier weaponry being distributed to moderate groups.

The videos appeared online this week amid deep divisions between John Kerry’s State Department and the Pentagon over how much more the US should involve itself militarily in the Syrian civil war.

The videos of the US-made BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles were posted online by Harakat Hazm, a Free Syrian Army brigade of fighters in north-west Syria linked to former Supreme Military Council leader Selim Idriss. There have also been reports that the Syrian Revolutionary Front of Jamal Marouf also now have TOW, or tube-launched anti-tank missiles.

Even though both rebel groups are linked to the SMC, they are reportedly backed respectively by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who have supported competing groups within the SMC. If the reports that both groups have the missiles are accurate, however, “then it’s likely that the US is either supplying the TOW missiles or allowing Saudi Arabia and/or Turkey and Qatar — to supply their own TOWs”, said Yezid Sayigh, a scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

The authenticity of the videos could not be verified and there was no immediate response from from National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan.

After peace talks between the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Syrian regime ended in failure last month in Geneva, the US is reportedly considering supplying rebel fighters with more firepower to tip the balance of power on the battlefield as Bashar Al Assad’s regime gains momentum.

Mr Kerry and the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, have urged the White House to intervene more forcefully in Syria, while Pentagon officials have warned against further steps such as no-fly zones, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday.

In recent White House meetings, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Martin Dempsey and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel have pushed back against the State Department’s attempts to increase the US’s military role in Syria.

In the run-up to US President Barack Obama’s trip to Riyadh two weeks ago, US officials were reported as saying that they were on the verge of allowing portable anti-aircraft missiles through to vetted rebels. But those reports have proved to be premature and the statements were perhaps intended only to relieve pressure from angry Arabian Gulf allies who have urged Mr Obama to do more as the Syrian war engulfs the region.

The reports also could be seen as an attempt to “increase pressure on the regime by making public hints of things” but “without actually doing anything that in fact commits them in a meaningful way on anything”, Mr Sayigh said.

The US continues to only want the rebels to change Mr Al Assad’s calculations and bring him back to the negotiating table, not defeat his military.

“The White House is in all likelihood not ready to accept such a decisive shift which could, as they see it, hasten regime collapse in the absence of a viable alternative, possibly empowering extremist groups,” said Faysal Itani, resident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East in Washington. The administration views the conflict primarily through this “narrow prism” and has a “profound indifference to its broader trajectory”.

The videos posted online this week by Harakat Hazm also showed fighters holding Russian-built SA-7 Manpads, but it is highly unlikely that they are part of any new assistance given a green light by Washington and were likely captured from Mr Al Assad’s Moscow-backed regime or purchased on the black market, analysts said.

The Wall Street Journal report stated that Pentagon officials may consider increased military assistance after Syria gives up all of its chemical weapons stockpiles, a process that is continuing. Over ninety per cent of its stockpile has either been given up or packed and awaiting removal, according to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, but Syria has so far refused to destroy any of its chemical weapons production sites, which officials have said they would like to convert for civilian use.

But the dispute over the chemical factories is unlikely to push Mr Obama to take further military action.

“One of the reasons they hesitate is because unlike most of the people who talk about this in public, the US does understand that each step will have a counter action” by Syria and its main international supporter Russia, Mr Sayigh said. This could include Syrian actions against regional US allies, he added.

“And unless they’re willing to go further, then they have to measure whether to take that first step.”

tkhan@thenational.ae