Two Syrian rebel commanders interviewed by The Daily Beast say they need advanced weapons to take out President Bashar al-Assad’s regime within the month and transition to a stable government. Khaled Habous, the head of the Damascus military council of the Free Syrian Army, said, “Before the end of this holy month of Ramadan it will be over.” Ramadan ends on Aug. 19.
But Habous also said that depends on whether his forces get high-tech weapons from the United States to finish the job. He cited Stinger missiles, the shoulder-fired rockets the Central Intelligence Agency supplied Afghan holy warriors in the 1980s, “that can neutralize the helicopters and tanks of Assad’s regime.” According to Habous, “This is all in the hands of the Americans. They have the say and we will hold them responsible for more victims."
Another rebel commander, Ahmed Nema, who heads the military council for the Free Syrian Army in Daraa, said on Sunday, “The regime is falling no matter what. I expect in four weeks the regime will go down, but because we lack advanced equipment it could go longer.”
The interviews with Habous and Nema were arranged by the Syrian Support Group, a Washington, D.C.-based lobby that has pressed the Obama administration to arm elements of the FSA. Though it’s perhaps not surprising that two commanders would press the U.S. for weapons support, especially as the rebels appear to be closer to toppling Assad, the Obama administration has so far refused to send any heavy weapons to Syria's rebels and instead has opted to support the opposition diplomatically and with nonlethal aid like communications gear.
In the past, White House and State Department officials have said they are reluctant to send weapons to the rebel fighters because the weapons could end up in the hands of extremist groups or even terrorist organizations. In an interview Friday, Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said 25 percent of the opposition has "extremist ties." He would not elaborate on the source of that information.
Portable Stinger missiles would be especially easy to sell on the black market and could end up in the hands of America’s foes, said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan membership group in Washington. Similar weapons sold to Libya in the Cold War known as SA-7 missiles went missing in 2011 during that country’s revolution.
“Certain weapons like Stinger missiles are extremely hard to control once they are transferred,” he said. “It could lead to very widespread unintended consequences during and after the conflict if those weapons fall into the hands of groups they were not intended for. There is a long history that shows that these very portable, essentially heavy weapons should not be transferred except under very limited and controlled circumstances.”
When asked about these concerns, Habous said, “We guarantee we will be responsible for receiving these kinds of weapons and distributing them and controlling them and putting them only in the hands of professionals who will use them properly.”
Heavy fighting continued Sunday throughout Syria. The BBC reported that government forces on Sunday drove rebel forces from a district close to the center of Damascus and was working to drive rebel fighters from the neighborhoods of Mezzeh and Barzeh.
Habous, a former commander in Syria’s southern command, has been trying to unify the approximately 8,000 rebel militia members fighting in and around Damascus. Louay Sakka, the head of the Syria Support Group, said Habous commands between 1,000 to 1,500 fighters.
Habous said his fighters have been unable to hold neighborhoods in Damascus the way rebels in other parts of the country have. But he also said he has seen hundreds of defections from the Syrian military since the bombing Wednesday that killed three top officials in the regime: Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha, Deputy Defense Minister and Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, and Hasan Turkmani, al-Assad's security adviser. Habous declined to discuss the bombing other than to say it was carried out by a special unit that was not directly connected to the Free Syrian Army.
Nema said his fighters near the Jordanian border have come across Russian intelligence officers providing communications support and repairs on aircraft as well as cargo flights to Syrian government forces.
A spokesman for the Russian embassy in Washington didn’t respond to requests for comment on Sunday. A U.S. official with access to U.S. intelligence on Syria said Russian intelligence officers are providing assistance to the Syrian military on the ground. The Russian navy relies on the Syrian port Tartus for access to the Mediterranean Sea.
The role of the Russians is critical to the survival of Assad’s regime. During the Cold War, Syria was a client of the Soviet Union and its military is supplied to this day by the Russian defense sector. While U.S. and Russian diplomats have publicly clashed at the United Nations since the spring over resolutions authorizing military force in Syria, behind the scenes the White House and the Kremlin have reportedly tried to work together.
Two U.S. officials with top security clearances working on Syria policy say the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, urged Assad in June to step down and cooperate with the plan developed by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to negotiate a new government with Syria’s opposition. In June, Lavrov also told Assad Russia would not be able to protect the Syrian president or his family if he deployed chemical weapons, according to two U.S. officials who work closely on Syria.
The CIA has been scrambling in recent weeks to account for Syria’s stocks of chemical and biological weapons. One Western diplomat who works closely with U.S. efforts to secure those weapons told The Daily Beast that the locations of the weapons was known to U.S. and regional intelligence services. The problem, this official said, was whether the CIA or other regional intelligence services for Jordan, Turkey or Israel had the manpower ready to secure those stocks in the event of a quick regime collapse.