The decision by the U.S. to begin supplying arms directly to Syrian rebels is too little, too late to tip the balance in the Syrian conflict, two top Middle East experts said Tuesday.
The military balance has tilted so far against the rebels in recent months that American shipments of arms to selected groups is not an effective solution, said Nabeel Khoury, senior fellow for Middle East and national security at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
If the U.S. wants to make a difference in the Syrian conflict — and end it more quickly — it needs a more direct, aggressive approach, Khoury told the Middle East Policy Council.
“If we had [supplied weaponry] two years ago, yes, it would have made a difference,” he said. “But now it’s not enough.”
U.S. deliveries so far include light weapons and anti-tank missiles. While the supplies are intended to aid militants, the Obama administration faces a daunting task of ensuring that the arms do not fall into the hands of extremists.
Mona Yacoubian, senior adviser on the Middle East at the Stimson Center, a national security think tank, said U.S. military intervention in a targeted way could still be effective, but arming the rebels is not. In fact, she said, it is the worst possible option for the Syrian people.
“We have to be a little more humble about our ability to influence [Syria] given our very little presence there,” Yacoubian said. “I think we need to be cautious at a minimum on the question of arming and the way that can impact a zone in conflict.”
Khoury said U.S. weapons being sent now would simply be matched by the other side. The weapons the Syrian regime already has, those coming from Iran and Russia, and the physical presence of Hezbollah fighters would offset any weapons the U.S. sends, according to Khoury.
“If they are quality weapons, anti-tank and anti-aircraft, it would make them more able to withstand attacks against them,” Khoury said. “But it would not be enough for them to win.”
According to Khoury, the United States lost the ability to affect the situation after the first year of the conflict. Providing the troops and equipment needed to have an impact now would be costly and risky. Nevertheless, he said, the U.S. needs to degrade Hezbollah’s forces and the ability of the regime to continue killing on a mass level.
“The logical thing is that we need to have an impact on how that war ends up,” he said. “So if weapons isn’t the name of the game, give me something else that is the name of the game and do it.”