Mitt Romney wants to arm Syrian rebels: What are the risks?

Extremist elements, some affiliated with Al Qaeda, appear to be playing a growing role in the fight against the Assad regime, posing a challenge to proposals, such as Romney's, to arm the Syrian rebels.

By , Staff writer

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    This Oct. 7 citizen journalism image, provided by Edlib News Network, shows Free Syrian Army fighters on top of armored vehicles that were captured from the Syrian Army in the village off Khirbet al-Jouz, in the northern province of Idlib, Syria.
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Mitt Romney announced this week that as president he would make sure Syria’s rebel fighters get the heavy arms they seek to bring down President Bashar al-Assad’s helicopters and fighter jets.

But with extremist Islamist elements – some affiliated with Al Qaeda – appearing to play a growing role in the fight to defeat Mr. Assad, the question becomes, how could the United States, under a President Romney or otherwise, ensure that weapons like shoulder-fired missiles not fall into the hands of anti-Assad forces that are just as vehemently anti-US?

Last month’s attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which Islamist extremists at least loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda are thought to have used high-powered weapons acquired in the chaos of Libya’s conflict last year, serves as an example of what can happen when weapons fall into the wrong hands.

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The threat of high-impact weapons making their way to Al Qaeda and like-minded organizations surged into the open Tuesday – a day after Mr. Romney declared in a speech that he would work with allies to ensure that Syria’s rebels received antiaircraft weaponry – when an Al Qaeda-affiliated group in Syria claimed responsibility for coordinated attacks on Syrian Army and intelligence installations outside Damascus.

The group, the Nusra Front for the People of the Levant, gave enough details about the blasts to suggest it had indeed carried out the attacks and was not just claiming to have done so

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No one considers the issue of arming Syria’s rebels a simple one. President Obama, who only last April declared the prevention of mass atrocities a US national security interest, has risked looking hypocritical by denying the rebels heavier arms even as Syria’s death toll has surpassed 20,000. Yet even as the administration has sent advisers into the conflict zone to work with the rebels and try to get a better understanding of the various factions, the problem of the extremist and Al Qaeda presence among Assad’s opponents continues to discourage any provision of heavy weaponry.

Even Romney in his speech was careful not to claim that the US under his presidency would do the arming, but that his administration would work with “partners” to see that others did.

“I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets,” he declared.

Some Republican critics of the Obama administration’s Syria policy have argued for arming the rebels, but others emphasize the problems posed by the presence of Islamist extremists in the conflict zone.

Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who visited Libya, Jordan, and the Syrian-Jordanian border over the weekend, issued a statement emphasizing the threat posed by Islamist extremism in the region.

“I am convinced more than ever that Al Qaeda, its affiliates, and other violent extremist organizations continue to be a serious threat to America and other countries around the world who share our free democratic values,” Senator Corker said after his trip.

Corker’s visit to Jordan coincided with reports that the Pentagon has dispatched a task force to that country to work with the Jordanian military on a range of security issues stemming from the Syrian conflict. The US military advisers, who arrived in Jordan this summer, are working with their local counterparts on handling the growing influx of Syrian refugees and on contingency planning in the event of Assad's losing control of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, according to The New York Times.

Jordan has also made clear to the US its concerns over the growing presence of Islamist extremists in a conflict-torn Syria.

Many regional and national security experts concur that the presence of Al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria makes arming the rebels a complex issue. But some also say there are ways to track – and potentially disable – any heavy weapons that end up with extremist, anti-US elements.

“The risks of transferred weapons falling into the wrong hands are clear. Iraq, Afghanistan, and the evolving patterns of modern terrorism have shown all too clearly the risks that such weapons could pose in the hands of extremist groups – as has the US inability to control the leakage of Stingers to Iran and outside Afghanistan,” says Anthony Cordesman, a national-security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a commentary this week on the CSIS website.

Noting the problem of uncontrolled weapons stockpiles in Libya, Mr. Cordesman adds, “The risks that such weapons could be turned on the United States and its allies are critical, and we and our allies are far less willing to bear the political costs or casualties of ‘incidents’ than extremists and dictators [are] if things go wrong.”

But he also says that “technological solutions” exist to reduce the risks of transferring the kinds of weapons he refers to as “equalizers” to Syria’s rebels.

“As pocket cameras with a global positioning system (GPS) show, a small chip can be inserted into these weapons that could continuously read their location once activated,” Cordesman says. “If such a chip was tied to a device that disabled the weapon if it moved to the wrong area, it would greatly reduce the risk of its falling into the wrong hands.”

IN PICTURES: Conflict in Syria

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