France looking at ways to 'safely' arm Syria's rebels

The French government is considering how it can provide advanced weaponry to Syria's rebels, but with safeguards that could limit the weapons from falling into the wrong hands.

Yong Homsi Lens/AP
In this citizen journalism image taken on Wednesday, shows damaged buildings are seen in the Jouret al-Chiyah neighborhood, Homs province, central Syria. Syrian troops and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies captured a strategic border town Wednesday after a grueling three-week battle, dealing a severe blow to rebels and opening the door for President Bashar al-Assad's regime to seize back the country's central heartland.

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With the legal obstacles to arming Syria's rebels overcome with the expiration of the EU arms embargo, France is now turning its attention to overcoming a major logistical obstacle: how to provide weapons to the rebels without letting jihadist factions later use those weapons against Western targets.

The technological superiority of President Bashar al-Assad's forces has been a key stumbling block to rebel success on the ground in Syria. While the rebels are believed to receive regular supplies of light weapons from Gulf states opposed to the Assad regime, they have not had access to advanced armaments, particularly anti-aircraft weapons needed to counter the government's jets and helicopters.

Although Western governments have considered supplying anti-aircraft weaponry to the rebels, the fear that groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamist rebel faction declared a terrorist group by the US, might get a hold on such weapons has so far won out.

But the Associated Press reports that the French government is looking at several means of technologically leashing advanced weapons to prevent their use against the West.

Last week, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told a parliamentary panel that "there are such-and-such types of arms that can be ... triggered in some conditions, and neutralized in other conditions." A French diplomat provided further explanation of the technology being considered, the AP reported today.

...A French diplomatic official, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, told The Associated Press that three main options are being considered when it comes to possibly arming the rebels: weapons that stop working after a specified time; weapons traceable by GPS; and weapons that can be ‘‘deactivated at a distance.’’

‘‘We’re studying everything we can to have good traceability,’’ the official said. ‘‘We’re quite aware it’s a risk ... but at the same time, 100,000 people have been killed, Hezbollah has increased its involvement, and we aren’t adding risk to risk. It’s already a calamitous situation, and the question is how we get out of it.’’

AP writes that according to a European munitions-company representative, such safeguards are not usually part of weapon designs, but could be added after manufacturing, likely by their government purchasers. And the alterations -- or "control enablers" -- could also restrict the range of anti-aircraft missiles, according to Matt Schroeder, director of the arms sales monitoring project at the Federation of American Scientists.

He said putting controllable enablers in missile systems is feasible in terms of existing technology, and that it could amount to ‘‘an effective control measure.’’

Some technological limits could involve equipping the missiles with batteries that run out of power after a certain time, requiring a code to activate them, and even being outfitted in such a way that the weapons would be disabled if Western military planes or civilian aircraft were nearby, according to analysts and defense officials.

‘‘But if you are really concerned about diversion (of weapons into the wrong hands), none of them alone is sufficient,’’ Schroeder said. He suggested that some savvy terrorists could outsmart the smart controls.

The urgency of the debate over whether and how to supply arms to the rebels ratcheted up a notch this week with the fall of Qusayr to Assad's forces on Wednesday. The retaking of the strategic town after rebels were driven out "will help strengthen the regime’s control of the key highway linking Damascus to the coastal port of Tartous, which bypasses Qusayr," reports The Christian Science Monitor.

The loss of Qusayr will represent a psychological blow to rebel forces, which have been reeling from a number of tactical setbacks on the battlefield in the past two months. Compounding opposition woes is a slow down in the flow of arms to rebel groups and bitter infighting between the political leadership of the opposition that is weakening its credibility in the international community.

A Syrian government official told the AP that with the fall of Qusayr, the regime will be turning its focus towards Homs – once the center of the uprising against Assad – in a series of "quick, successive attacks" against the towns around the city. Syrian state media, however, say the next target will be Aleppo in the north.

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