USA TODAY: U.S. weapons can get to Syria rebels via familiar route

Date Published: 
June 14, 2013

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Now that President Obama has decided to provide military assistance to Syrian rebels, the next step is not difficult, said a military analyst who's been studying the Syria conflict.

U.S. intelligence has vetted the rebel forces to determine who should get the arms, and it has a willing middleman in Turkey on Syria's northern border, said Christopher Harmer, an analyst with the Institute for the Study or War.

Turkey, a NATO member, has air bases and ports U.S. forces have used to move equipment and people to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

Turkey's Incirlak Air Base, which is technically a NATO air base, is one likely hub for U.S.-supplied weapons intended for the rebels, Harmer said.

"The U.S. moves cargo through there all the time," Harmer said. Establishing a supply route to the rebels "is not that hard."

Tony Badran, an analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said Syrian troop movements toward the major rebel stronghold Aleppo could disrupt that well-worn supply route in Syria.

"It's a very important area for weapons supplies because it's close to the border with Turkey, and the countryside along the border with Turkey is really where all those weapons come in," Badran said.

The United States has been sending communication equipment to rebels of the Free Syrian Army through Turkey. Rebels have picked up shipments in Istanbul and driven them across the border into Syria along secure routes.

Turkey has sea ports for larger shipments. Most of the arms rebel leaders have requested are light weapons, chief among them shoulder-fired missiles. The missiles are wanted to shoot down Syrian aircraft or disable Syrian tanks.

If the United States agrees to provide such weapons, they can be delivered to Turkey by air, Harmer said. Arms could then travel by truck or rail to the Turkish border with Syria, and that's where U.S. control over the weapons will probably end, Harmer said.

The effort depends on Turkish cooperation. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has allowed weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to move through his country, and he supports the toppling of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.

The Syrian rebels control at least 20 miles of Syrian territory south of the Turkish border, "so there's really no mechanical way for the Syrian government to stop them," Harmer said.

There is a risk that Syria will directly attack Turkey over the shipments. Syria has fired missiles into Turkish territory along the border to target weapons shipments and rebel fighters seeking protection. Turkey has hosted about 1 million Syrian refugees, and rebels have camps there as well.

The U.S. presence in Syria will probably be very small, limited to CIA or Special Forces operators, and focused on identifying rebel groups they can trust, Harmer said.

"We don't want to provide weapons to al-Qaeda affiliates" who are also fighting the government in Syria, he said.

When the conflict started, the rebels' identity and motivations were not well understood. Harmer said two years have changed that situation. The Institute for the Study of War and other independent groups have completed extensive studies on the various rebel groups.

"We know from open sources, YouTube videos and interviews who are secular freedom lovers and who are the extremist religious types," Harmer said.

Rebel leaders have reported Syrian government forces moving toward Aleppo, Syria's largest city in the north and a hub for rebel operations and supplies and fighters coming from Turkey.

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