West debates arms shipment risk to Syrian rebels | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 19.06.2013
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West debates arms shipment risk to Syrian rebels

Syria's opposition insists that it needs arms from the international community. Some countries in the West are indeed considering arms shipments while critics warn they could easily end up in the wrong hands.

For Syrian President Bashar Assad, there is little doubt. Shoud the West start shipping weapons to the Syrian opposition, they would be supporting terrorists. "Europe's backyard would fall to the terrorists," Assad warned in an interview with the German daily, Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung. "Europe will pay the price for this. Terrorism means chaos, chaos will lead to poverty and that will lead to Europe losing an important market," Assad said. Sooner or later, those terrorists would then turn against the West, he warned. "They will return armed with extremist ideologies and experience in fighting." That's why, in the Syrian president's view, Europe does not really have a choice but to cooperate with the Damascus regime.

Western warnings

Assad is certainly anything but an unbiased player. But in the West there is also plenty of criticism about potential arms deliveries to the rebels. The German government and many experts are rather skeptical of weapons shipments to the opposition.

Rebels in Aleppo ( (photo: Thomas Rassloff/dpa)

Will the weapons lead to more massacres or stop Assad troops from committing them?

The US, Britain and France, on the other hand, are considering arming the opposition. The US, so far, is shipping mostly so-called non-lethal equipment; for instance, bullet proof vests and night vision goggles. But Washington wants to step up its support and President Barack Obama has justified this change of heart with the alleged use of poison gas by the Assad regime.

Pieter Wezemann, an arms trade expert with the Stockholm peace institute SIPRI, criticizes the arms plans. "I don't believe that weapons deliveries will help to end the conflict." On the contrary, Wezemann believes it will lead to a further escalation of the war.

He warns of the danger that rebels would use the arms to commit human rights violations or massacres. Many of the opposition groups do not stick to international law and the laws of war. Supporters of arming the rebels say, however, that this risk could be minimized by carefully choosing which rebel groups to supply.

SIPRI expert Wezemann thinks this argument doesn't hold up. Weapons can be passed on. "There is a clear risk that those arms will end up in the wrong hands." Michael Brzoska of the Hamburg Institute for Peace Studies and Security Policy agrees. "The rebels are not united, there are many different groups. Everything that will be brought into Syria could end up in the hands of Islamist groups." And then, indeed, those arms could some day be directed against the West.

Concerns either way

Free Syrian Army member (photo: REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi)

The US hopes to control who gets weapons and who doesn't

Experience shows that arms often disappear in war zones. In Libya, it was especially the stockpiles from the Gadhafi regime. But also France's anti-tank rockets for the rebels disappeared after the end of the war. "We don't know what has happened with those arms," says Wezemann. Possibly, a part of them are now in the hands of rebel groups in Mali. Also, there are reports about arms delivieres from Libya to Syrian rebels.

The biggest concern, however, is the potential delivery of ground-to-air missiles. While those could be equipped with a safety mechanism to render them unusable should they end up in the wrong hands, the risk remains. "If the rebels had modern weapons like ground-to-air missiles, then there is the danger that they could attack civilian or military airplanes," warns Wezemann. Israel, in particular, is concerned about this, he said..

For this reason, the United States and Britain are still reluctant about direct shipments of such missiles. But Saudi Arabia allegedly already delivered shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles two months ago, according to the Syrian opposition website Zaman al Wasi. Some reports even suggest the shipment of some 250 old Soviet-made Konkurs anti-tank missiles coming from a country in the region. Samir Nashar, a leading member of the opposition National Syrian Council, is convinced that " the US has given the green light to those states who are behind the shipments."

Studies looking into whether ground-to-air missiles have been used against civilian airplanes suggest that since 1973 there have been around 50 such attacks – many of which didn't work. But there have been a number of casualties in other cases. "Those shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles are indeed a serious problem," explains Rolf Nikel, arms specialist with the German government. "They is a danger to civilian aviation." Any shipments to Syria will most likely only add to this problem.

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