How Obama's 'No MANPADS for you' policy in Syria is backfiring

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been vicious in his use of air power against his opposition. That is the principal reason the death toll has been so high, counting more than 65,000 Syrian dead since 15 March 2011, the start of the uprising.

Almost from the beginning he was quick to use his attack helicopters against protesters and he has continuously escalated to the point that now he is dropping cluster bombs and incendiaries on opposition neighborhoods. Ever since the first Friday of "The No-Fly Zone" on 28 October 2011, the Syria people have demanded that a Libya type "No Fly Zone" be established to protect them from Assad's "Death from Above."

This has been denied them and the cost has been enormous in terms of human lives. President Barack Obama has been the most adamant of all the NATO leaders in denying the Syrian people a "No-Fly Zone" or the Syrian opposition any military support.

But Obama has taken it one step further, he has made it the business of the United States to see that the Syrian opposition received few heavy weapons from its supporters. Most especially, he has used our country's clout to "veto" precisely the weapon that the Syrian opposition has needed and demanded the most, MANPADS.

MANPADS are portable anti-aircraft missiles and everyone has known all along that they would be a game changer in Syria, as they have already proven to be in recent months since Assad's opposition, against Obama's best efforts, has managed to get their hands on them.

Bashar Assad has been able to slaughter his own people so easily from the air only because they lacked effective modern weapons with which to shoot down his aircraft. The lack of these weapons has probably allowed Assad to hang on for a year longer than he could have otherwise and cost the Syrian people, on both sides of this conflict, more than 50,000 unnecessary deaths.

Obama's "No MANPADS for You!" policy has had a very high price in Syrian blood. His stated reason for denying the Syrian opposition MANPADS has been his fear that they would fall into the hands of Islamic extremists.

Below the fold I will show how Obama's "No MANPADS for You!" policy with regards to the Free Syrian Army, has not only allowed Assad to hang on and extend this conflict into a third year, undoubtedly costing tens of thousands of Syrian lives, but also has had the unintended consequence of accomplishing precisely what Obama was seeking to avoid.

Now, as a result of Obama;s "No MANPADS for You!" policy, Islamic extremists in Syria are acquiring more MANPADS every week.

The Guardian wrote about these questions on 28 Nov 2012, more than a month ago when MANPADS first started showing up on the Syrian Battle field:

Just as the clamour for supplying the Syrian opposition with sophisticated new weapons looked to be reaching a tipping point in the Gulf and the west, the rebels have clearly got hold of some arms of their own.

A video of a government gunship being brought down by a missile outside Aleppo, a first for the rebels, emerged at the same time as European diplomats agreed to change the terms of the EU arms embargo on Syria. From Saturday, it will be rolled over for only three months, signalling to President Bashar al-Assad that weapons deliveries to the rebels could start at short notice if the aerial bombardment of rebel-held areas continues.

"This sends a strong message to the regime that all options remain on the table and makes clear the need for real change. The regime's indiscriminate use of violence against their people will not be ignored,"
a Foreign Office spokesman said.

The warning came as the rebels' principal backers, in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been chafing ever more loudly against the US veto on supplies of sophisticated, potentially decisive weapons such as shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles (widely known as Manpads – an acronym for man-portable air-defence systems) to the rebels.

The US veto was motivated principally by the fear of such a weapon falling into the hands of a jihadist group that would then use it to bring down a civilian airliner, as al-Qaida tried to do with an Israeli plane in Mombasa in December 2002. Some in the Gulf states have argued that there are precautions that could be taken against such proliferation. But until now, they have stuck by the ban.

"We did this as a favour to Obama," a Gulf source said. "But now Obama has been re-elected, there is a question of whether we should still be bound by such an undertaking." Shoulder-launched missiles could be bought in Pakistan or in Africa, the source added.

So far, there is no evidence that any of the ground-to-air missiles used to date have come from outside Syria, according to Peter Bouckaert. Emergencies director for Human Rights Watch. (emphasis added by me)

In the sub-title to this article, the Guardian say that access to MANPADS by the opposition "could mark a turning point in the conflict."

While the danger of these weapons falling into the hands of terrorists is real, over 900 civilians have been killed with them since 1970, it was and is a real problem with regards to Libya and anywhere else they have been distributed like Afghanistan in the '80.

Against that possible negative outcome, this also must be considered:

More than 55,000 people have been killed in Syria in the past year. They are now beiung slaughtered at the rate of 5,000 a month. Many, if not the great majority have been killed by Assad from the air. In addition, his continued domination of the air has been most important in enabling the continued existence of his regime and thus all the killing he is doing and as well as the lives taken by the people trying to defend themselves from Assad's assaults.

Therefore I conclude that Obama's veto over these defensive weapons has cost tens of thousands of lives and has played a key role in allowing Assad to stay in power this long.

From the beginning, Obama has been reluctant to demand Assad's removal. What has been most important to Obama is that:

Syria is at the center of most every tacit alliance/agreement/understanding that keeps the Middle East from descending into complete chaos.

As a commenter to an earlier diary put it. By Syria, he means Assad. These are agreements made with Assad, not with "Syria."

I think the reasoning goes like this: So what if he's a murdering bastard to his own people? The US has a long history of working with and even supporting such "leaders", what's really important is (for Israel's sake especially) that he is key to preserving the "stability" of the region.

Russia supports Obama's stand, I'll bet Assad does too. After Obama's inaugural address Michel Martin of NPR titled her piece "Did Syrian President 'Rejoice' In Obama's Speech?"

You don't have to be a rocket scentist to figure out why Russian and Syria so strongly support Obama's "No MANPADS for You!" policy. RIA Novosti reports:

“We are calling on all countries to stop feeding illegal armed formations in Syria, do everything possible to prevent MANPADS from getting into the hands of those whose actions are impossible to control, especially with account for militants’ threats to shoot down civil aircraft,” the Russian diplomat said.

Most likely the "militants" who threaten to shoot down civilian air crafts with MANPADS the FSA has been trying to get, work for Assad. That's how this game is played.

And we now know why Russia's opposition is only to "illegal" weapons going to Syria. They have been been supplying Russian cluster bombs to Assad. They wouldn't want anything to get in the way of their delivery to the targets.

Obama's argument that MANPADS shouldn't be supplied to the Syrian opposition in this critical struggle out of fear that they may eventually end up on the black market is undermined by the fact that thousands of MANPADS are already on the black market.

The cynic will say "So, what?" Even if there are thousands of MANPADS on the black market, why risk adding fuel to that fire? The answer is simply because there use, in the hands of those being bombed by Assad, can save thousands of lives now.

According to Al Arabiya:

Following the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, some intelligence experts estimated that as many as 10,000-15,000 MANPADs sets were looted from Libyan government stockpiles. The whereabouts of most of these are unknown.

The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point suggests other sources of wild MANPADS:

Some reports suggest that missiles stolen from Libyan arsenals have spread as far as Niger, the Gaza Strip, and the Sinai Peninsula. In addition to AQIM, al-Shabab has been known to possess advanced MANPADS, allegedly provided by Eritrea.[7] Given that AQAP maintains ties to al-Shabab and has reportedly taken over multiple military depots in Yemen following the outbreak of civil unrest there,[8] it is not implausible to assume that AQAP could acquire additional MANPADS. There are also reports that the Taliban acquired MANPADS from Iran,[9] making it conceivable that elements of the group sympathetic to al-Qa`ida’s aims could provide al-Qa`ida with MANPADS for a future attack.

A May 2012 Stratfor report gives us more background about these MANPADS in the wild as well as some information on the danger they hold for civilian aircraft:

While we have not yet seen reports of the Tuaregs using these missiles, reports of close interaction between the Tuaregs in northern Mali and regional jihadist franchise al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) raise concern that AQIM could buy or somehow acquire them from the Tuaregs. We have seen unconfirmed reports of AQIM fighters possessing MANPADS, and Algerian authorities have seized MANPADS among the weapons being smuggled into the country from Libya. For example, in mid-February, Algerian authorities seized 15 SA-24 and 28 SA-7 Russian-made MANPADS at a location in the southern desert called In Amenas.
The SA-7 has a kill zone with an upper limit of 1,300 meters, while some newer models can reach altitudes of more than 3,658 meters. The average range of MANPADS is 4.8 kilometers (about 3 miles). This means that most large commercial aircraft, which generally cruise at around 9,140 meters, are out of the range of MANPADS, but the weapon can be employed against them effectively during the extremely vulnerable takeoff and landing portions of a flight or when they are operating at lower altitudes.

If that many MANPADS are already "in the wild" so-to-speak, then denying them to Syrian's that are being bombed daily by Assad on the grounds that those might eventually add to the thousands on MANPADS already on the black market, makes about as much sense as denying patients medical marijuana on the ground that some of it may end up on the street, or denying my grandfather a rifle to defend his family from KKK attacks on the grounds that it may eventually end up in criminal hands.

Unintended Consequence of Obama's policy "MANPADS for jihadists!"

Obama's "No MANPADS for you" policy has played a critical role in continuing this conflict and allowing Assad to stay in power but Obama's policy of denying MANPADS to the FSA is actually resulting in the very thing the claimed to be trying to avoid, namely MANPADS in the hands of jihadists.

By denying MANPADS to the FSA, Obama has caused this war to go on much longer than likely would be the case otherwise, this plus a lack of western military support has allowed jihadist such as al Nursa to come to the fore and grow. Because they have superior weapons and tactics as compared to the more secular FSA fighters, they have been able to have an influence over the development of the Syrian revolution that far outweighs their numbers or their support among the Syrian people. This is not good.

These jihadist have been in the forefront of the fighting and taking one of Assad's bases after another. This is having a snowball effect because every time the al Nursa or the other jihadists seize another of Assad's bases, they raid the armory and become even better armed. This in turn, allows them to have even more influence, recruit even more soldiers and seize still more bases.

So now these groups are taking Assad's bases and these groups are getting MANPADS, Assad's MANPADS, as we have seen on the battle field.

So the unintended consequence of Obama's "No MANPADS for you" policy is that the jihadist end up with the MANPADS and increased influence in the Syrian revolution because they can defend the children with them, while the secular FSA doesn't have them and can't.

Click here for a list of my other Daily Kos dairies on Syria