Former US Ambassador to Syria: Give Syrian Insurgents Manpads to Shoot Down Iranian Planes

Last September, Congress said no to plans to bomb Syria, by failing to approve an authorization for the use of military force. Now there is a new push – exemplified by this New York Times op-ed by former Ambassador Robert Ford – for deeper US military intervention in Syria.

Advocates for US military intervention are assuring us that there will be no direct US bombing of Syria. Instead, so-called “moderate rebels” in Syria (whoever they are) will do the bombing on behalf of the United States, with US-supplied weapons.

Ford argues explicitly for supplying Syrian insurgents with surface-to-air missiles, noting approvingly that these missiles could be used against Iran [my emphasis]:

Mr. Assad now depends on Iran and Hezbollah for his survival, and Iran’s influence in Syria is likely to remain as long as Mr. Assad does. . . .

To achieve this, the Free Syrian Army must have more military hardware, including mortars and rockets to pound airfields to impede regime air supply operations and, subject to reasonable safeguards, surface-to-air missiles. Giving the armed opposition these new capabilities would jolt the Assad military’s confidence.

Even Iran would have to consider the safety of its supply flights. That caution would inform Iranian thinking and might even stir Tehran to join us in pushing for serious negotiations.

Of course, “Even Iran would have to consider the safety of its supply flights” is an indirect way of saying, “I want Syrian insurgents to use US-supplied weapons to shoot down Iranian planes.”

It is broadly acknowledged that supplying surface-to-air missiles to Syrian insurgents would be an extremely dangerous step, because these weapons could be used by these insurgents or their comrades-in-arms to shoot down civilian aircraft outside of Syria. Those arguing that the United States should supply these weapons to Syrian insurgents have been trying to reassure us that the weapons would be under careful US supervision, or “subject to reasonable safeguards,” as Ambassador Ford says.

If the weapons were under US supervision, and they were used to shoot down Iranian aircraft, then there would be no question who the ultimate author of the action was: the US government. In order for Iran to believe that its aircraft could be shot down by these weapons, the US government would have to give Syrian insurgents permission to use them to shoot down Iranian aircraft.

If US weapons were used by US-supplied insurgents to shoot down Iranian aircraft with US approval, the Iranian government would reasonably view that as an act of war against Iran by the United States. How might the Iranian government respond to such an act of war by the United States? Shouldn’t we at least consider that before embarking on this course of action?

Perhaps you think it’s a great idea for Syrian insurgents to shoot down Iranian aircraft with US weapons and US approval. I think it’s a terrible idea. But regardless of whether we think this is a great idea or a terrible one, can we agree that before such a momentous decision, members of Congress should publicly weigh in, for or against?

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vermont) recently led a bipartisan group of 19 representatives in urging President Obama to resist pressure to transfer manpads to Syrian insurgents. Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) recently tried to amend the National Defense Authorization Act to prohibit the transfer of manpads to Syrian insurgents, but the House Republican leadership wouldn’t allow Conyers’ amendment to come to a vote.

The administration had to go to Congress before bombing Syria because of Congressional pressure. Now, we need members of Congress to speak up and demand that there be a Congressional vote before supplying manpads to Syrian insurgents.