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  1. ITV Report

The timing and impact of US support for Syria's rebels

David Butter is an Associate Fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, an organisation which provides independent analysis of international affairs.

David Butter Credit: Chatham House

Why has the offer of US aid to Syria taken so long?**

The delay has resulted from President Obama's reluctance to become directly involved in the military conflict. Reasons for the shift include:

  • The chemical weapons red line: Obama initially sought to blur the issue by saying that the CW reports were not conclusive, and that the amounts that appeared to have been used were too small to constitute a breach of the red line. The White House now claims that it is persuaded by the evidence of Assad regime use, and that cumulatively it is significant.
  • Recent advances by Assad forces on the ground, in particular Qusair, and the increased involvement of Hezbollah/Iran in the conflict. US probably judges that the rebels need critical support to prevent regime breakthroughs in Deraa (south) and Aleppo (north).
  • Concerns about risk of further Israeli involvement following recent incidents close to the Golan Heights - better to help the rebels to push regime forces back than allow further degradation in Golan area.
  • Diplomatic pressure from UK and from Saudi Arabia, which is now taking the lead in channelling Arab support to the rebels after Qatar's role has become increasingly controversial.
  • Political pressure from Congress, led by John McCain. The appointment of Susan Rice is possibly significant, given her presumed support for a more interventionist stance.
A boy carries a weapon as he walks with members of the Free Syrian Army in Deir al-Zor Credit: Reuters

How long will it take for arms to reach rebels in Syria?**

The US has already established lines of logistical support for the Supreme Military Council, headed by General Idriss, and we must assume that contingency plans for arming the rebels have been drawn up for many months.

Obama is unlikely to have signed off on this without having a detailed schedule for timing and scope of deliveries. Saudi/French efforts are underway to restock rebels in the north; a US effort is likely to focus on the south, at least initially.

In light of indications that the regime is looking to advance quickly, it is probable that US arms will be delivered soon.

Free Syrian Army fighter near Nairab military airport in Aleppo Credit: Reuters

What arms may the United States offer?**

Idriss and SMC have submitted a long list of what they want. The US will be happy to provide basic material - automatic weapons, ammunition, anti-tank rockets, mortars, night-vision equipment.

What arms may the United States be reluctant to offer?**

They may be reluctant to provide anti-aircraft weapons because of risk of being passed on and used against civilian airliners. There has been talk of smart anti-aircraft missiles that can be remotely disabled, or which lose function after a certain time.

Members of a rebel group eat in a safe house in Aleppo Credit: Reuters

Could arms supplied by the United States by overpowered by Russian anti-aircraft missiles which have been promised to Assad?**

Russian anti-aircraft missiles are a bit of a red herring. They are unlikely to be deployed for at least a year, if at all. They are primarily a concern for Israel because of their range.

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