The downing of a Malaysian passenger aircraft in Ukraine may stiffen Obama administration resistance to providing heavy armaments to rebels — or even besieged governments — seeking U.S. help in hotspots around the world.
In the wake of the Malaysia Airlines disaster, President Barack Obama has raised the risk that weapons could be misused in his discussions with aides about the U.S. possibly arming fighters it supports, according to an administration official familiar with the discussions.
The U.S. says a Russian-made missile probably fired by the pro-Russian insurgents brought down the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet in Ukraine, killing 298 people. The separatists also have shot down military aircraft in their fight against the government.
The lethal success of the Ukrainian separatists now is playing into White House calculations of U.S. arms assistance. Aid to the Syrian opposition, as well as to the governments under siege in Ukraine and Iraq, is part of the discussion, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The president and his national security team are wary of “the proliferation risk associated with anti-aircraft systems,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said in an e-mail.
Syrian opposition groups and some members of Congress have been lobbying for heavier weapons from the U.S. to fight the forces of Bashar al-Assad, which have been attacking rebel positions with helicopters and other aircraft. Arizona Senator John McCain and other lawmakers say Obama should send more sophisticated arms to the Ukrainian government and to Iraq, where the central government is fighting an insurgency let by an al-Qaeda spinoff.
The Obama administration has declined so far to provide weapons such as portable anti-aircraft missile — known as Manpads — to rebel groups in Syria because of concerns they will be misused. They could fall into the hands of Islamic radicals who also also are fighting the Assad regime. While Iraq has been sent military supplies, Obama so far has rebuffed requests for more lethal aid to Ukraine.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down on July 17, killing all aboard. In a briefing yesterday, U.S. intelligence officials said technical intelligence and satellite images indicate a Russian-made SA-11 missile fired from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine brought it down.
In debating requests for portable, shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, “we’ve always been concerned about the danger that those types of weapons could fall into the wrong hands or pose a risk to civil aviation,” Rhodes said.
Obama has laid responsibility for the actions of the separatists on Russia, while stopping short of accusing President Vladimir Putin’s government of direct involvement.
“Russia has urged them on. Russia has trained them,” Obama said at the White House July 21. “We know that Russia has armed them with military equipment and weapons, including anti-aircraft weapons.”
The downing the airliner in Ukraine hasn’t lessened pressure in Congress for the U.S. to deliver more arms.
“Now is the time to provide Ukraine with the weapons and other military assistance they have requested and require to defeat the separatist groups and secure their country,” McCain said in a July 21 statement. Doing so sooner, he said, might have helped Ukrainians preempt the plane attack.
In a statement on Syria the day after the plane was downed in Ukraine, McCain said that the Pentagon appears to be providing “too little support to too few opposition fighters.”
Ahmad al-Jarba, president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, was in Washington in May, lobbying for more U.S. weapons. His chief of staff, Munzer Akbik, said at the time that the opposition was seeking “missiles, the anti-aircraft, anti-tank missiles and maybe some kind of guided weaponry and heavy artillery.”
In Iraq, Sunni Islamic State militants have captured weaponry, including machine guns, rifles and vehicles, for use in their own battle against the Shiite government. Some of the materiel has been funneled to fellow militants in Syria.
U.S. officials have said that so far there’s no evidence that Islamic State fighters have picked up Hellfire anti-armor missiles, which are fired from aircraft, or other weapons that could threaten American, Israeli or other forces in the region.
Representative Mike Conaway, a Texas Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said that “anytime you arm anyone you’ve got to ask — or you should ask — will this person stay on the side of the angels after you’ve given them a weapon?”
A large part of the equation when deciding to arm insurgents, he said, is whether there’s any control left after they are handed over. “If I think I can have quite a bit of influence, then that’s one thing, but if I don’t think I can have any influence at all, then I need to be dead certain that they’re going to stay good guys.”
New York Republican Peter King called last year for arming rebels against Assad but said now the “time has passed” when the U.S. could exert control.
In each case, deciding on arms assistance “depends on the time and the place and the type of vetting we can do,” King said in an interview. It also “depends on the type of weaponry that you’re giving,” he said.
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the administration should stay focused on how to use the Malaysian airplane disaster as leverage on Russia and “not what kinds of regulations should we have on weapons systems we provide to insurgent groups to whom we’re favorably disposed.”
“You need to be very careful about both command and control of weapons systems and providing sufficient intelligence” to differentiate targets, he said. “The administration is much more willing to describe what our policy isn’t than what it is,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Margaret Talev in Washington at [email protected]
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at [email protected] Joe Sobczyk