Skip to main content

Arms to Syria opposition still a debate in progress

By Jamie Crawford, CNN
updated 10:06 AM EDT, Thu July 25, 2013
In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
HIDE CAPTION
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
Syrian civil war in photos
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
99
100
101
102
103
104
105
106
107
108
109
110
111
112
113
114
115
116
117
118
119
120
121
122
123
124
125
126
127
128
129
130
131
132
133
134
135
136
137
138
139
140
141
142
143
144
145
146
147
148
149
150
151
152
153
154
155
156
157
158
159
160
161
162
163
164
165
166
167
168
169
170
171
172
173
174
175
176
177
178
179
180
181
182
183
184
185
186
187
188
189
190
191
192
193
194
195
196
197
198
199
200
201
202
203
204
205
206
207
208
209
210
211
212
213
214
215
216
217
218
219
220
221
222
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • All options come with a hefty price tag
  • "We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences," Martin Dempsey says
  • Sen. John McCain says a no-fly zone over Syria is the most effective way

Washington (CNN) -- While the United States draws closer to providing some form of lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, the debate over how extensive the package should be and the possible outcome are likely to follow any decision.

In a letter to the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee this week, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey laid out the scenarios that could unfold, ranging from the establishment of a no-fly zone over Syria, to training and assisting the opposition through intelligence and logistics assistance.

Read more: 'London 11' vow to increase arms to Syrian rebels

None of the options, he said, would be easy, and all would come with a pretty extensive price tag.

"We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action," Dempsey wrote in the letter to Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI).

Syrian photographer documents destruction
Resentment towards Syrian refugees grows
Stemming the Syrian violence

"Should the regime's institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control."

Some advocates such as Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain say a no-fly zone over Syria is the most effective way to stop the killing machine of President Bashar al-Assad.

Read more: Putin criticizes West on plan to arm Syrian rebels

"I know that we have the military capability to impose a 'no-fly' zone, to crater their runways and their fixed installations where fuel and parts are, and establish a 'no-fly' zone with Patriot missiles," McCain said in June. "And if we can't do that, then the question ought to be asked to the American taxpayer, to the Pentagon, 'What in the world are we wasting tens of billions of dollars for defense for if we can't even take care of this situation?'"

Pentagon's complex contingencies

But despite costs of such an operation possibly going as high as a "billion dollars per month over the course of a year" as Dempsey wrote in his letter to Levin, analysts say such an option faces other challenges.

Opinion: Time running out to aid Syria's rebels

Despite the risk to U.S. aircraft and recovery force personnel that may be associated with it, the military involvement in Afghanistan will not end until the end of next year. The Pentagon is also dealing with some complex contingencies in the context of Iran if diplomacy over Tehran's disputed nuclear program fails, as well as other volatile areas in the Middle East.

'Trading modernization against readiness'

The debate also comes at a time when forced budget cuts known as sequestration are shaving billions from the defense budget and forcing some military commanders to question whether the readiness capacity in fiscal environment can handle a new contingency.

Opinion: What if al-Assad prevails?

The regional impact of Syria's crisis
U.N.: 5,000 Syrians dying every month
Cousin: Bashar al-Assad has to go

"We are trading modernization against readiness, it's the only place we have to go for funding because of this arbitrary mechanism that is sequestration, and it's causing a real problem on the readiness side of the house and putting our ability to modernize over time at risk," Gen. Mark Welsh, chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, said last week at a security forum sponsored by the Aspen Institute.

Too little too late?

Some of the criticism over the administration's decision to send some form of lethal aid to the Syrian opposition, in a conflict that has claimed nearly 90,000 lives, and more than two years after the conflict began amounts to little more than too little too late.

"Right now, we're playing for the best worst option," Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer in an interview on the 'Situation Room' Tuesday.

'No guarantees in this business'

Frederic Hof, a former top State Department adviser on Syria, says it would have been better had President Barack Obama endorsed recommendations of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and former CIA Director David Petraeus to arm mainstream opposition elements when they recommended it a year ago.

But acting and arming now is better than staying on the sidelines, Hof says.

Read more: Syria is a '10-year issue,' top general says

"There are no guarantees in this business, but when you consider the costs of inaction, of trying to stand aside and watching this problem fester, it's clear to me that just trying to hold Syria at arm's length is every bit as risky as the alternatives, says Hof, now senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. "There are no good answers here, no silver bullets."

For Hof, the limited use of "targeted strikes" against specific elements in al-Assad's arsenal responsible for much of the killing, like artillery and missile strikes that reach heavily populated areas, would be an effective tool alongside the provision of small arms and training to the opposition.

"It kind of restricts the amount of expense and the amount of time because you will know with some degree of specificity when you have actually accomplished the mission," Hof says.

Billions of dollars

In his letter to Levin, Dempsey said the cost of such missions could reach billions of dollars, depending on the duration of the operations.

And then what about the disparate state of the Syrian opposition?

Much of the trepidation for greater involvement in the Syrian civil war was the presence of al Qaeda affiliated fighters within opposition ranks, and the danger of weapons falling into their hands.

"There is sort of an idea out there that all of the opposition are extremists," says longtime Syria watcher Andrew Tabler with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "They are not, but there are extremists among their ranks."

Who gets the weapons?

For Hof, the funneling of all weapons through Brig. Gen. Salim Idris, the supreme commander of the Syrian Military Council, whom the United States and the West see as an interlocutor, would be an effective organizing mechanism for the opposition.

"Up until now, things have come in with a variety of motives in mind -- different countries and kingdoms wanting clients inside Syria, and private contributors mostly from the [Persian] Gulf wanting to support jihadists," Hof says in advocating for a central figure to funnel everything through. "This is a big reason why there is chaos and disunity in the opposition ranks."

Obama to move forward with plan to arm Syrian rebels

Diplomatic solution still an option

That said, the United States is still pursuing a diplomatic solution through which a political transition would be brokered by all sides of the conflict as long as al-Assad had no role in any incoming government.

While the makeup of any transition government would not include anyone with blood on their hands, as called for by the Geneva Communique signed on to by the United States and other countries, the possible presence of some remnants of the al-Assad regime in a transition government causes pause for some analysts.

"I don't think it will be pulled off anytime soon," said Tabler, who says a process that allows the possible inclusion of regime elements in a new government over a population that has changed rapidly over the course of the last few years would be problematic. "It's just going to kick the can down the road, and we are going to be back to the same place we were before. But this time it will be with many more death tolls, so I just don't think it's viable."

Frustration in Congress with aid to Syrian rebels

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Syrian crisis
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
As a 10-year-old, this boy first hit the headlines in 1982 when he saved his cat from a fire. This year, he was reported to be a suicide bomber.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Fri September 5, 2014
Aqsa Mahmood,19, would listen to Coldplay and read Harry Potter books. Then this Glasgow girl became an ISIS bride.
updated 4:23 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The little boy looks barely old enough to walk, let alone understand the dark world he's now inhabiting.
updated 12:22 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
ISIS has released video of the aftermath of a mass execution. Another video shows alleged captured Peshmerga soldiers.
updated 5:33 AM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
The number of people who have fled Syria and registered as refugees amid the country's civil war will surpass 3 million Friday.
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, grew up in the Minneapolis area, but died more than 6,000 miles away in Syria, fighting for ISIS.
updated 4:54 PM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
If the United States is serious about thoroughly defeating ISIS, it must, somehow, go through Syria.
updated 8:43 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Jihadists have kidnapped over 140 Kurdish boys to "brainwash" them. But a few boys made a daring escape.
updated 8:48 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Reports that Syrian warplanes carried out a cross-border attack on Iraqi towns is further evidence of the blurring of the two countries' borders.
updated 5:33 PM EDT, Tue June 24, 2014
CNN's Atika Shubert speaks to a father whose teenage son joined the Jihad movement in Syria.
updated 7:41 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
At the start of Syria's civil unrest, Omar would rally against the government alongside his schoolmates, later taking to the streets in his hometown of Salqin.
updated 5:17 PM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
Atika Shubert looks at the rise of European jihadists traveling to Syria and whether they soon could join ISIS in Iraq.
updated 10:53 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
The final stockpile of Syria's chemical weapons has been shipped out of the country, according to the OPCW, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
updated 4:25 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
The US isn't doing airstrikes in Iraq. Is there a vacuum for Syria and Iran to step in? CNN's Fareed Zakaria weighs in.
updated 4:04 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reports on Syrian rebels using underground explosions against the better-equipped regime.
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Mon June 9, 2014
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh returns to the besieged rebel areas of Aleppo, a pale skeleton of a city that has had the life bombed out of it.
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Mon June 2, 2014
Syria may be embroiled in a brutal three-year civil war, but that's not stopping the government from holding presidential elections.
updated 7:23 AM EDT, Tue June 3, 2014
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh meets an ISIS defector in hiding and gets a rare look into the group's recruitment process.
updated 12:10 PM EDT, Thu June 5, 2014
Over a thousand Syrian refugees have turned an abandoned shopping mall in Lebanon into makeshift living quarters.
updated 5:58 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
More than 100,000 people reportedly have been killed in Syria since a popular uprising in 2011 spiraled into a civil war.
ADVERTISEMENT