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Will Syrian rebels get surface-to-air missiles?

Regardless of whether surface-to-air missiles are provided, we must not underestimate the extent of regional support for the opposition

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Published: Updated:

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s stated support for supplying Syrian rebels with surface-to-air missiles has raised hope for a correction to the balance of power away from the Syrian regime and Iranian and Russian forces. This will help protect civilians, since no Turkish, Arab or international forces will intervene to do so. It will also thwart a political solution that keeps President Bashar al-Assad and his regime in power despite their crimes.

Regardless of whether surface-to-air missiles are provided, however, we must not underestimate the extent of regional support for the opposition. This support is rarely announced, but has played - and continues to play - an important role in helping rebels succeed in confronting Assad’s forces and terrorist organizations.

Despite Russian military involvement alongside Assad’s forces, independent reports have confirmed rebel success in destroying many regime armored vehicles, more than in previous years because of the provision of more advanced weapons.

Jubeir’s suggestion can be executed by providing Chinese missiles, if American ones are not made available, to target the regime’s air force, and to force the Russians to conduct fewer air raids and fly at higher altitudes to avoid being struck. This will expedite a moderate political solution acceptable to most parties.

Precautions

One of the excuses against providing the opposition with surface-to-air missiles is fear of repeating the experience of U.S. Stinger missiles that were smuggled out of Afghanistan after the confrontation with the Soviet Union. These missiles were then used to threaten countries such as the United States and Saudi Arabia, which bought them and gave them to Afghan rebels.

Suspicions that the Syrian opposition may be infiltrated by the regime or terrorist groups are justified. There have been frequent discussions about this. The moderate opposition’s military leaders suggested that such advanced weapons be controlled by electronic chips that limit their use to certain purposes, but they were told this was not guaranteed or sufficient.

Between getting directly involved in the war and enhancing the opposition’s military and intelligence capabilities, the latter option seems less dangerous and more urgent

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

They suggested that the missiles be supervised by the opposition’s elite and military leaders from countries who are present with them on the ground for intelligence purposes. This was also rejected as unconvincing.

The war has expanded and become more dangerous for the Syrian people and neighboring countries. Even Europe is now threatened. Russia has granted regime forces air cover to march toward the Turkish border, while the Iranians - also thanks to Russian air support - have progressed in the south, threatening Jordan’s security.

At this point, political talks are not enough. The balance of power must be shifted in favor of the moderate opposition at a time when powers meet in Geneva to approve a political plan that decides Syria’s future according to the current situation on the ground. Between getting directly involved in the war and enhancing the opposition’s military and intelligence capabilities, the latter option seems less dangerous and more urgent.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Feb. 23, 2016.
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Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.