Russia, US should be careful who they arm in Syria

Syria offers ideal ground for testing new weapons whose makers are eager to show in com­bat situations.

2016/10/16 Issue: 77 Page: 5

The Arab Weekly
Claude Salhani

Syria’s main opposition group has called for foreign allies to supply rebel forces with ground-to-air missiles to counter deadly air raids on rebel-held sections of Aleppo. With Russia backing one side in this never-ending civil war and the United States backing another, it is easy to see a repeti­tion of the Afghanistan crisis and its dire consequences in Syria.

As a brief reminder, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, the Cold War was at a peak. So as not to ap­pear that the United States was directly involved in the crisis, US involvement in Afghanistan was channelled through the CIA. The US spy agency, according to some records, supplied the anti-Soviet mujahideen some 500 Stinger missiles. Other sources say a more accurate figure would be closer to 1,500-2,000 missiles along with 250 launchers.

The Stinger is a man-portable air-defence system (MANPAD). It operates as an infrared surface-to-air missile. It is shoulder-held and requires a single operator.

A report published in a 1993 US Air Defense Artillery publication states that Afghan mujahideen succeeded in scoring 269 kills with a 79% kill ratio. If these figures are accurate it would make the Stinger responsible for more than half of the Soviet Union’s losses in Afghanistan.

The Soviets claimed the figures were grossly exaggerated and that they only lost 35 fixed-wing aircrafts and 63 helicopters.

By the end of the war, a con­siderable number of Stingers remained unaccounted for. This raised fears that some of the hundreds of missiles, which cost $183,300 each, made their way to al-Qaeda.

Armed with a $55 million budg­et, the United States attempted to buy back missiles it could and what was floating around on the black market. The US government claims it recouped most of the Stingers. However, some estimates claim there were about 600 mis­siles unaccounted for and in the hands of yesterday’s allies, who have become today’s adversaries.

Syria offers the ideal ground for testing new weapons whose makers are eager to show in com­bat situations. Thus the urge to provide those weapons to various factions in the field.

However, given the complexity of the crisis and flip-flopping of loyalties and alliances, Russia and the United States should be very careful whom they arm and what they arm them with as, without a doubt, these weapons will eventu­ally be turned against those who provided them.

Instead of escalating the con­flict to dangerous heights, both Moscow and Washington should endeavour to find solutions and resolutions to the conflict.

The danger in escalating an arms race in Syria lies in the instability and lack of long-term dependabil­ity found in the vast majority of the groups involved in the fighting in Syria.

The anti-government coalition fighting to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is made up of several dozen factions. Many owe their existence to those who pay their salaries and provide them weapons and resources. From the United States to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Iran, many of the rebels, again depending on their financial backers du jour, find it necessary to switch their allegiance and alliance to survive. Many of these rebel groups owe their existence to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (ISIS).

With several thousand anti- American fighters and an equal number of combatants opposed to Russia’s support of the Syrian regime, introducing more sophis­ticated weaponry into the theatre of operations would be a grave mistake.

Given the growing numbers of loose cannons among opposition groups in the country, having Stinger missiles, or the equivalent, in their possession is tempting the devil. While the Stinger does not represent a threat to high-altitude commercial airliners, it does have a killing ability up to 7,000 metres, good enough to hit planes on ap­proach or departure from commer­cial airports. Of course, it can hit military aircraft within its target range.

Rather than contribute to the creation of a future problem and set the stage for a disaster, it would be highly beneficial if the major powers involved in the Syrian con­flict could accentuate their efforts at finding a negotiated end to the conflict and to renew their efforts at peace-building.

Raising the stakes by arming the antagonists with more sophisticat­ed weaponry simply prolongs the agony of the Syrian people.

Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly.

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