A higher grade of weapons is reaching Syrian rebel fighters from foreign countries.
The New York Times reports that Saudi Arabia is purchasing weapons in Croatia for anti-government fighters.
Joshua Landis is director of the Center of Middle Eastern Studies program at the University of Oklahoma.
He also writes the blog, Syriacomment.
He says he constantly receives photos and videos from Syria showing that the rebels are better armed, though they are still no match for the Syrian government forces.
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Marco Werman: In his first over-seas trip to Europe and the Middle East as Secretary of State, John Kerry has already accomplished something. He placed a call to a leader of the Syrian opposition and after that conversation; the Syrian opposition dropped its plans to boycott a key meeting coming up in Rome. Sill, any hope for a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria remains small and opposition forces may have a new reason to reject dialog with the Assad regime and keep on fighting. The New York Times reports today, that Saudi Arabia has financed a large purchase of weapons for the Syrian rebels; weapons that are apparently coming from Croatia. Joshua Landis is director of Middle Eastern Studies Program at the University of Oklahoma. He also writes the blog ‘Syriacomment.’ Joshua, you followed the weapons in the hands of both the rebels and the Syrian government. We’ve heard about these weapons from Croatia that began arriving in Syrian hands in December. Does this represent a new trend?
Joshua Landis: I think it does represent a new trend and a number of us bloggers have been getting photos sent to us by opposition members off of Youtube, which show these much more sufficient weapon systems: anti-tank missiles, various rocket launchers, high caliber rifles. Now, they don’t, still, make the rebels anywhere near equal to the Syrian army which is much better armed and has, you know, an Air Force, tanks, and heavy artillery.
Werman: But you think this large shipment of weapons to the rebels isn’t going to make too much of a difference?
Landis: Look, it’s making a difference already. It has boosted the morale of the opposition. We’ve seen a number of air forces around air fields around Aleppo fall recently to the opposition and has allowed the opposition to capture big depots of arms and including some mig-fighters and training planes. So this has already made a tangible difference in the balance of power. It’s just not the manpads that they want. They want to be able to shoot the Syrian Air Force out of the sky and eliminate it. That will change the balance of power.
Werman: And Joshua, what is a manpad?
Landis: A manpad is handheld, anti-aircraft rocket. We gave them to the Afghans in the 1980’s and they destroyed the Soviet Air Force and helicopters, brought them all down. And that’s what led the Afghan rebels, Musharrif to win against the Soviet Union and the Soviets withdraw. The trouble is, in empowered these’¦Musharrif and Al-Qaida came out of this. And the CIA and Washington does not want Islamic militias in Syria to get these advanced anti-aircraft missiles because they believe that they could be used against Israeli civilian places or other civilian planes. And that it could be just metastasizing a weapons problem. They have put the kibosh on the Saudis or anybody else supplying lots of advanced anti-aircraft missiles to the Syrian opposition. And that has been a bloody bone of contention between Western governments and the Syrian opposition. They say without these things, they Syrian government is going to punish us and is going to hurt people and create a big refugee problem by just destroying us with their Air Force. We’ve got to bring the Air Force down, level the playing field.
Werman: As to that New York Times’ report, remind us why Saudi Arabia even cares about Syria?
Landis: Well, Saudi Arabia lost Iraq and an ally in Iraq, Saddam Hussein, when America over-turned them. Caste the Sunni of Iraq to the bottom of society and catapulted the Shiites to the top. Now, American believed, at the time, that this would make Iraq pro-American and pro-Saudi. It didn’t. Iraq became, the Shiite government, became pro-Iranian, infuriating Saudi Arabia and making Saudi Arabia feel very vulnerable and that the balance of power had shifted. Syria, once it broke into rebellion in the Arab Spring, a Sunni population, 70% are Syrian are Sunni Arabs, the government is dominated and the security forces are dominated by Alawites, 12% of the population who are these hetrodoc-Shiites [SP] and aligned with Iran. So if Saudi Arabia could win back Syria and turn Syria into a Sunni government, that would be aligned with Saudi Arabia, they would, in part, make up for the lost of Iraq.
Werman: Hence this whole proxy war. So, does Iran continue to arm the Syrian government?
Landis: Absolutely. Iran is clearly backing the Syrians. They have a lot to lose if Syria goes down because America, you know, wants to over-turn the Iranian regime as well and has real sanctions on it. And so, I think Iran looks at this as a domino theory, that if Syria goes down, Iran will become the focus of international tension next. And it’s much better to be fighting a proxy war in Syria than it is to be fending off any kind of direct action to do with Iran.
Werman: So, John Kerry, the new Secretary of State, he managed to coax the Syrian opposition to Rome for this crucial meeting. Are you hopeful, Joshua, that Secretary Kerry is going to have an effect on what’s happening in Syria?
Landis: He has promised that he’s not going let the Syrian opposition, ‘dangle in the wind’ as he said it. And he is going to do more for them. How much more is going to be in terms of weapons and how much in just aid is unclear. But there are a lot of things that Americans can do. And they can loosen up some of these prescriptions against advanced weapons. They can tell European governments, ‘You can supply weapons to Saudis and others.’ And probably these advanced weapons we’re seeing get into Syria in greater numbers has gotten a nod and a wink from Washington. So I think people are working now hand and glove so Washington can turn a blind eye to more and advanced weapons getting to the opposition.
Werman: You know that there are new reports out every day about the level of causalities in Syria. You followed Syria for years, Joshua, you have family on your wife’s side there. What have you had to carry with you emotional about this civil war for the last two years?
Landis: Well, every Syrian and every person who is attached to Syria has seen a country that love completely fall apart and the human costs are exploding. For American, and the American government particularly, there’s anxiety that the neighboring governments whether Lebanon, or Jordan, and in Iraq, we are seeing uptakes of violence and that this could spill over to the neighborhood.
Werman: Joshua Landis, director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at the University of Oklahoma. He also blogs at Syriacomment. Joshua, thank you very much.
Landis: Well thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
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