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  January 16, 2017

Obama and Congress Just Made it Easier For Trump to Arm Syrian Rebels


Anti-aircraft weapons sent to vetted moderate rebels could end up in the hands of extremist groups as many work in coalition together, says journalist Ben Norton
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Obama and Congress Just Made it Easier For Trump to Arm Syrian RebelsSHARMINI PERIES: It's The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Anti-aircraft weaponry known as MANPADS capable of bringing down airplanes, they're also known as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. Limiting their availability is an important consideration in fighting terrorism because these weapons can take out military and commercial aircrafts.

On December 8th, 2016, President Obama authorized a measure that lifts certain restrictions in transferring such gear to those helping the U.S. military operations in Syria. On December 23rd, he authorized the NDAA for 2017, and on Thursday, the Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, during her weekly press briefing, said that these developments, particularly in reference to the MANPAD, she said were "insane". In response, the State Department's Spokesperson, Mark Tanner had this to say.

(video clip)

MARK TANNER: The point is this is not a new allegation that we've seen from them and, you know, the fact is that we're not providing any kind of MANPADS or anything to the Syrian opposition.

(end of video clip)

SHARMINI PERIES: Joining us now to discuss the MANPADS to Syria, or the possibility of them, and the implications of such transfer, is Ben Norton. Ben is a reporter for Alternet's "Grey Zone Project", where he writes primarily about U.S. foreign policy and the Middle East. He recently authored an article with Alternet titled "NDAA Leaves Door Open for U.S. to Send Syrian Rebels Missiles that Can Shoot Down Planes". Thanks for joining us, Ben.

BEN NORTON: Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: Our pleasure. Ben, can you tell us about the provision within the NDAA and the Presidential memo waiving the restrictions on the supply of weapons to Syria, and what these two things have to do with the possibility of transferring these anti-aircraft shoulder-held weaponry to Syria?

BEN NORTON: Absolutely. So, it's important to understand so it's not too confusing, that we're talking about two developments here, both of which, you know, apply ostensibly to Syrian rebels.

In the first, we have on December 8th, the White House announced a Waiver Order signed by President Obama that amended a 40-year-old law called "The Arms Export Control Act", which was passed 1976. This is not the first time that Obama has amended this law. In 2013, he amended it a previous time in order to open the door for the U.S. to send more arms to Syrian rebels trying to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad. And this is essentially a further opening of the door -- you know, it's similar, it's not unprecedented to the 2013 action. But this will allow more arms and reduces restrictions on sending arms to militants that the U.S. says are fighting in its national interests. And of course, whatever its national interests and its national security are depends on, you know, how an administration defines it. So, this is an ambiguously-worded statement, but you know, it's important to see how it could potentially open the door for further arming of Syrian rebels.

The argument that the Obama Administration gave for passing this new amendment of the Arms Export Control Act was that they're further arming militias in Northern Syria, most of whom are Kurdish fighting ISIS, which could very well be true, absolutely. But, you know, the way the language is worded opens the door for further arming of rebels committed to overthrowing the government of Assad.

Two weeks after that, there was another development which pertains more directly to rebels trying to overthrow the Syrian government -- and this was the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, the NDAA. And this was, you know, passed by Congress and signed by Obama. And in the 2017 NDAA, as I reported for Alternet, there was a provision that was buried in the Conference Report which was 3,000 pages long, and this provision was added just before the vote, and it was added in a bicameral Conference Committee.

I spoke to two members, who asked to remain anonymous, of two different House offices, so offices for two House Representatives, one Republican and one Democrat. And, you know, these are Representatives who are concerned about potential anti-aircraft weapons ending up in the hands of extremists. And they told me that there was a discussion going on in the Conference Committee Meeting just before the final version of the NDAA was reached, and essentially there was a kind of middle ground that was met in this agreement where the hawks who wanted further arming and more heavy arming of Syrian rebels agreed to create a provision by which the U.S. could potentially send MANPADS to Syrian rebels that are vetted, as long as several Congressional Committees approve of such transfers before they happen.

So, you know, the White House, the State Department of the Pentagon, if you know, they decide that they're going to send MANPADS to Syrian rebels, they have to go through Congress. So, there's a degree of transparency there. There's a degree of checks and balances. But, while some saw it as a victory, as a way of, you know, perhaps preventing these weapons from ending up in the hands of extremists, there still is the possibility, as I mentioned in my report. It still leaves the door open.

And some members of Congress such as Rand Paul and others who have been critical of, you know, more interventionist U.S. foreign policy, have warned that previously -- in the case of Rand Paul, he warned previously -- that U.S. arms transfers to Syrian rebels have ended up in the hands of ISIS and other extremist groups.

You know, ISIS, previously in 2014 before it broke eventually with al-Qaeda, ISIS was working in coalition with other rebel groups, even with so-called moderate rebel groups such as members of the FSA. They were working in coalition to fight not just the Syrian government but also Kurdish militias.

So, there's certainly a precedent of this kind of thing happening and I'll add one more point here. The problem with MANPADS, and one of the reasons that the U.S. has previously actually been concerned about sending them to Syria -- so this, in some ways, could mark a break with past policy -- is because MANPADS are so small, and as the name suggests, you know, man portable air defense systems, they can fit in a golf club bag. They can fit in the trunk of a car.

So, you know, if you send MANPADS out there, it's kind of a Pandora's Box. You know, even if you send it to vetted groups, and even if it gets Congressional approval and it ends in the hands of the very few moderate rebels that are still remaining there, you know, many of these groups work in coalition with extremist groups, like the former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which recently rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham even though it's still recognized internationally as a terrorist group.

You know, these groups are working together. So, if you send MANPADS to one of these groups and it ends up in the hands of al-Qaeda or their extremist allies, you know, these weapons could be smuggled out of Syria, they could remain in Syria. There's no knowing where these MANPADS could be sent. And anyone who has them could use them, as you mentioned, not just to shoot down bombers, you know, like Russian planes, but also to shoot down civilian aircraft. So, to reiterate what I said a second ago, I mean, I think this really is a kind of Pandora's Box moment, and we should be very careful about what's happening.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right, and according to the Department of Homeland Security, more than 40 civilian aircrafts have been hit by MANPADS missiles since the 1970s or so. So, the Russian concerns aren't totally out of sync, particularly given their airplanes are flying the region. So, I think that appears to be a legitimate concern. But what risk is there that MANPADS could be used against Russian aircrafts in Syria, in particular? Like, what is the likelihood of ISIS getting a hold of them, for example, and using it against Russian aircrafts or even the Syrian so-called rebels using them against Russian aircrafts?

BEN NORTON: Well, it's very hard to say. And I'll preface by saying that there have been some videos posted online from Syrian rebel groups that show them using MANPADS. So, to be clear, there are some MANPADS in the region already -- not too many. And for years, many rebel groups have complained that they don't have access to enough anti-aircraft weaponry and have requested MANPADS.

The U.S. position has shifted internally within the U.S. government; there has been, you know, major turmoil not just on this issue, but on Syria in general. So, in the case of the war in Syria right now, we have rebels armed by the State Department and the CIA, that are actually fighting mostly Kurdish rebels that are armed by the Pentagon.

And even within the Pentagon, as we know from the reporting of Seymour Hersh, there have been major discrepancies. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has really opposed many of the more interventionist policies in Syria. And, in general, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to Seymour Hersh's reporting, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have actually undermined some of the Obama administration's more interventionist policies out of concern that the Obama administration was essentially feeding extremist groups.

And we now know, we have access to declassified materials, not only Hillary Clinton's emails but, for instance, a 2012 DIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, document that talks about how the U.S. and its allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey -- who in many ways are actually playing a more hands-on role in Syria than the U.S. itself -- this 2012 DIA document discusses how rebels were creating what they called a "Salafist principality," you know, a kind of ISIS-like extreme cell of the Wahhabi state.

So, you know, whether it's probable that these MANPADS, if sent, could end up in the hands of extremists, it's hard to say. But what we can, I think, judge from history, is that if you send these weapons to Syria and you send a lot of them, the chances are pretty high.

As I mentioned, especially in this point in the war, the opposition is so thoroughly dominated by extremists, or by groups that are allied with extremists, that it's hard to say what could go where. A recent report in the Financial Times even discussed how, you know, vetted groups that have received support from the U.S. and received weapons from the CIA and training, they're actually now making deals with ISIS and they're trafficking fighters. They're also paying large sums of money to help ISIS fighters flee and join their own groups. And the Financial Times article discusses how many former members of ISIS are not really ideologically shifting their positions, they're still very extreme, but they're joining these other rebel groups inside Syria.

So, you know, it really is a mess. And, as I stressed a moment ago, I mean, we should be very concerned about opening this Pandora's Box and allowing more weapons into Syria. The problem in Syria is that there are already way too many weapons...

SHARMINI PERIES: Exactly. And there's no indication that all the weapons and MANPADS there are all coming from the Americans alone. I mean, many people are providing weaponry in the region. In fact, it sounds like everyone's dumping their weapons in Syria right now.

BEN NORTON: The MANPADS that already exist, some analysts who study Syria very closely have speculated that these MANPADS probably came from either Saudi Arabia or Qatar, or perhaps Turkey. And we now know, actually some journalists inside Turkey were imprisoned for exposing how the Turkish government was directly sending weapons to Syrian rebel groups, including extremist Islamist forces. And, actually, what's interesting about this new MANPAD development is, although this demonstrates that the Obama administration may be doubling down on a slightly more hawkish policy right before Trump enters, the U.S. allies that have played a big role in Syria are also doubling down even further.

You know, Donald Trump has said that he would stop support for rebels inside Syria, and he could potentially shift Syria policy, but of course, there's a larger deep state that has been engaging in very different actions for a while now. And, as I mentioned, there's still dissent and contradiction within the deep state. However, at the same moment, Qatar and Saudi Arabia -- especially Qatar -- have said that if the U.S. withdraws support, they're going to increase their support to rebels inside Syria.

And, actually, an article in Reuters citing U.S. sources revealed that both states and Turkey are willing to turn a blind eye, as the article put it, and allow even MANPADS to be sent, if elements of, you know, these regimes in the Gulf or in Turkey decide they want to arm these rebels, or if rich donors want to send weapons.

And I'll add one more point here. I mean, it's also important to understand that we now know that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have been supporting extremist groups in Syria for years. Reuters in early 2012, in April, published an article discussing how Saudi Arabia was already paying the salaries of FSA officials and, you know, this goes back years. But we also now know, thanks to an email released by WikiLeaks that Hillary knew as Secretary of State that Saudi Arabia and Qatar and these crucial U.S. allies -- which are very extreme themselves, and very oppressive themselves -- were even supporting ISIS previously.

So, there's a precedent for much of this but it should concern us all that things might continue to spiral out of control. And Syria is already completely destroyed, so the notion that we would more heavily militarize things, to me, is preposterous.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And I guess the next step is to try to figure out how the Trump Administration and the new people in Defense who are going to be sworn in, in the next few weeks, see how they will respond and I hope you can join us, Ben, then, to do further analysis for us. Thanks for joining us today.

BEN NORTON: I would love to, and thanks for having me. Always great to be here.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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