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Tim Blagg

Blagg: Deeper into Syria

So we’ve finally decided to stick our collective toes into the Syrian swamp. Now the trick is to keep them from being bitten off.

President Barack Obama announced last week that he’s decided to authorize “lethal aid” to Syrian rebels — a serious escalation of our involvement in the civil war there that is claiming an estimated 5,000 lives a month.

What exactly “lethal aid” means is yet to be determined. Up to now, our assistance — at least officially — has been limited to things like medical supplies and food.

Now we’re talking weapons.

The thing that pushed Obama over the edge — very, very reluctantly — was conclusive evidence that Syrian President Bashar Assad has used chemical weapons against the rebels. That crossed the famous “red line” that Obama had drawn earlier in an attempt to prevent Assad from poisoning his own people.

It didn’t work, and now we’re being drawn deeper into Syria.

The situation has been made more serious by the addition of an estimated 5,000 Hezbollah guerrillas who are now propping up Assad’s forces. They have helped him recapture Qusair, near the Lebanese border and planned offensives against Homs and Aleppo have made the matter more urgent.

What might we send there? The rebels appear to have plenty of small arms, mostly Kalishnikovs assault rifles, PK and DShK machine guns captured from the government or smuggled in across a border. They could probably use more ammunition — they use a lot — and those RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades are handy.

Notice that we’re talking about Soviet-style weapons and munitions, not U.S. That’s because the foreign policy of the Soviet Union for 45 years was based on exporting thousands of tons of cheaply made weapons to everybody who wanted them.

That’s why the AK-47 has become the symbol of the insurgent. Did you know there is actually a country that features the rifle on its flag? Mozambique’s banner includes an AK-47, a hoe and book, superimposed on a star.

The rebels’ biggest need is protection against air attack, and that means shoulder-fired anti-aircraft rockets such as the Stinger. In fact, the Russians have just announced that they are supplying Assad with their own version of the Stinger, the SA-7.

But there’s a serious problem with shipping Stingers to Syria. We did that in Afghanistan, and it helped turn the tide against the Soviets. But then we found our erstwhile allies, the Mujahidin, were handing them over to our enemies, who were shooting down our aircraft with them.

Since some of the most effective Syrian rebels are associated with hard-line Muslim groups, including al-Qaida, giving them weapons that are too deadly could boomerang later.

Body armor and night-vision goggles are on a possible import list, as are anti-tank rockets more effective than RPGs. We do have some American trainers on the ground there, probably CIA and special ops troops such as Green Berets. So sophisticated weapons like our Javelin, or the older Dragon, anti-tank rockets could be deployed with trained operators.

Artillery is more problematic, but could be of great use to the rebels. Light weight tubes such as our 105mm howitzers could be towed behind the insurgent’s ubiquitous pickups and, with a range of 7 miles, could even the odds in firefights. And there are a wide variety of very useful mortars that could be sent.

It will be interesting to see what the Pentagon and the White House decide ... walking a tightrope between honoring a commitment and setting ourselves up for future trouble.

I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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