US Anti-Tank Rockets in Syria: Did Congress Approve?

Reuters reports (emphasis mine):

Online videos show Syrian rebels using what appear to be U.S. antitank rockets, weapons experts say, the first significant American-built armaments in the country’s civil war. . . . Some analysts suggested they might have been provided by another state such as Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, probably with Washington’s acquiescence.

This report should give citizens, voters, and taxpayers in the United States pause: “probably with Washington’s acquiescence”? You mean to say that as citizens, voters and taxpayers in the United States, we don’t know for sure whether the US government signed off on this? And what specifically does “Washington’s acquiescence” mean? Who exactly signed off on this? The president of the United States? The CIA? The House and Senate intelligence committees? Other members of Congress? Aren’t we entitled to know the answers to these questions?

Reuters notes:

Under terms of the original sale, Riyadh would be obliged to tell Washington if it were transferring them to any third party.

So if Saudi Arabia didn’t inform the United States that it was transferring these US weapons to the Syrian civil war, then Saudi Arabia was breaking the agreement under which the US sold Saudi Arabia these weapons. Furthermore, if Saudi Arabia could transfer these weapons to the Syrian civil war without US consent, then any legal restriction on transferring the weapons to the Syrian civil war would be meaningless; the United States could simply supply them to some other state who would “do the dirty work.”

Reuters says (emphasis mine):

U.S. officials say privately there remain clear limits to American backing for the insurgency, given the widely dominant role played by Islamist militants. A proposal to supply MANPAD surface-to-air missiles was considered but rejected.

This is striking, because while it was indeed earlier reported that the United States was considering supplying Manpads, the State Department appeared to deny the reports. Here’s what the AP reported on March 28 (emphasis mine):

The United States is considering allowing shipments of portable air defence systems to Syrian rebels, as president Barack Obama sought to reassure Saudi Arabia’s king that the US is not taking too soft a stance over the conflict. . . . Saudi officials have grown particularly concerned about what they see as Obama’s tepid response to the Syrian civil war and have pressed the US to allow them to play a direct role in sending the rebels the air defence systems known as Manpads.While administration officials have previously ruled out that option, a senior official said it was being considered anew, in part because the US has developed deeper relationships with the rebels over the past year.

Here’s what The Los Angeles Times reported on March 28 (emphasis mine):

President Obama is weighing whether to allow shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles to be shipped to moderate factions of the Syrian opposition, possibly with help from the Saudi government, a U.S. official said Friday.

. . .

In public, advisors to Obama said the White House had not changed its position on providing Manpads to the opposition, and that the matter did not come up as part of Obama’s meeting with Saudi King Abdullah on Friday.

. . .

But later in the day, a second U.S. official, who also asked not to be identified, suggested there may be room for flexibility.

. . .

In the right hands, the missiles, a potent weapon, could seriously threaten the Syrian air force, analysts say. But U.S. and Israeli officials have feared that they could be used by terrorists to bring down commercial airliners, including in Israel.The U.S. government has worked for years to try to buy up excess inventory around the world.

Here was the State Department denial on March 31:

QUESTION: Yes. While the president was visiting Saudi Arabia, it was alleged that he’s agreed to allow the delivery of surface-to-air missiles and other – antitank –

MS. HARF: Manpads?

QUESTION: Yes, exactly.

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: To the Syrian opposition. But then yesterday, Foreign Minister Lavrov assured the press that in his talks with Secretary Kerry, Secretary Kerry made it very clear that the United States has no intentions whatsoever to send them these kinds of weapons. Can you clarify that?

MS. HARF: Well, let me clear. We have not changed our position on providing Manpads to the opposition. We have said it’s a proliferation risk. This wasn’t an issue that was even discussed in the meeting in Saudi Arabia. It wasn’t a part of their meeting. There’s no change in the US position. Obviously, we don’t discuss the details about all types of assistance that we provide, but we have made very clear publicly our concerns about this one particular system because it does have a proliferation risk.

QUESTION: So you are concerned that in case this kind of system is delivered, it might find its way to extremists, jihadists, and so on?

MS.HARF: And could be used . . .

QUESTION: That would be –

MS.HARF: And could be used to do some very bad things.

QUESTION: Right. They could be used for, let’s say, civilian airliners –

MS.HARF: Exactly.

QUESTION: . . . and so on?

MS.HARF: Exactly.



QUESTION: So there has been no change.

MS.HARF: No change.

The State Department denial appeared strong, forceful and clear. The State Department denial appeared to want to give the impression that press reports saying that the United States was considering this were mistaken. But now Reuters reports matter-of-factly that supplying Manpads was indeed considered and rejected.

Exactly when did this “rejection” take place? Was it after the March 28 press reports but before the March 31 State Department denial, or was it after the March 31 State Department denial?

In either case, was the March 31 State Department denial not effectively a lie in not acknowledging that supplying Manpads was in fact being considered?

Don’t the American people have a right to know what is going on with such a significant decision, particularly in light of the fact that the American people and Congress decisively rejected direct US military intervention in the Syrian civil war?

If the Israeli government is on record opposing the transfer of Manpads to Syria because of the terrorism risk to civilian aviation, is that not a highly relevant fact?

If US weapons now being transferred to the Syrian civil war are subsequently used for terrorism against the United States or US allies like Israel, would such terrorist acts be used to justify a United States or Israeli military response that would likely kill civilians and provoke further escalation? Would there likely be any accountability, then, for the fact that the United States contributed to the terrorist act by supplying the weapons used for it, knowing that it was likely that they would be so used?

And where was Congress in all this? In these press reports the word “Congress” is absent. Did the administration consult Congress in making these decisions? Who in Congress did they consult? Who in Congress signed off on supplying antitank weapons?

Note that, as James McMichael wrote on March 29 (emphasis mine):

Those concerns that Manpads supplied to “moderate” rebels will find their way into the hands of terrorists are extremely well founded. Saudi Arabia purchased Croatian antitank weapons and grenade launchers that were then provided to the “moderate” Free Syrian Army. As documented with video evidence by the Brown Moses Blog, some of those weapons wound up in the hands of the extremist jihadi group Ahrar al-Sham, and McClatchy Newspapers confirmed that the FSA shared their new weapons with Ahrar al-Sham. Even worse, as documented with photographic evidence by the Brown Moses Blog, those Saudi-purchased Croatian weapons are now being used in Iraq against the Iraqi Army by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a group so savage that it has been expelled from al-Qaeda.

So in the past, antitank weapons supplied by Saudi Arabia to “moderate Syrian rebels” apparently wound up in the hands of a group of jihadists “so savage that it has been expelled from al-Qaeda” who are now using them against the US-backed Iraqi army.

And yet, apparently, a decision has now been made to allow Saudi Arabia to supply US anti-tank weapons to “moderate Syrian rebels.”

But there is no apparent record of any consultation with Congress, no apparent expression of congressional support or dissent, no apparent interest from the media in whether or how Congress, or some members of Congress, signed off on this.

Is this what democracy looks like?

What can we do about this? An obvious baby step for members of Congress to take, if they do not wish to be considered a potted plant” by the administration and the media, as Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.) complained in August, when the president threatened to bomb Syria without congressional approval, would be to declare themselves on the Manpads issue. If members of Congress moved to explicitly prohibit the transfer of Manpads to Syria, they would be aligning themselves with the administration’s public position and reportedly also with the Israeli government’s position. And they would be sending a clear signal that they do not want to be considered a “potted plant” as the administration escalates its military involvement in Syria’s sectarian civil war.

If you don’t want Congress to be considered a “potted plant” on sending to Syria dangerous weapons that could easily fall into the hands of anti-US terrorists, you can join 12,000 Americans in telling Congress so here.