Day 1,131: One weapon could change the course of the Syria conflict


Syrians holding portraits of President Bashar al-Assad and waving national flags take part in a rally to show their support to the government on February 22 in Damascus.


Louai Beshara

Today is Day 1,131 of the Syria conflict.

The big news over the weekend was the release of four French journalists after 10 months of captivity,* as well as the consensus that seems to be forming that Assad's regime dropped chlorine gas canisters on several towns in the past month. Regular air strikes on Aleppo continued on Sunday.

This morning, Syria's parliament speaker announced that presidential elections will be held on June 3, despite the ongoing conflict. Assad is expected to stand for reelection and to win. Sunday, as the AP report on the election date points out, Assad visited the recently captured Christian town of Maalula, pictured above, "where he projected the image of a protector of Syria's religlious minorities, many of whom feel threatened by the majority Sunni rebels." (More images of the destruction to Maalula here.) Good PR is good PR, apparently, even in the midst of a civil war.

Perhaps the most provocative news of the morning, however, is that Time magazine seems to think White House officials are seriously considering sending over the Number One item on the rebel wishlist: surface-to-air missiles, aka man-portable air defense systems, aka manpads. An unnamed "Arab official" told Time that "The introduction of manpads could be a game-changer in Syria, like it was in Afghanistan in the 1980s with Stinger missiles." (For less wonky types lacking the Afghanistan backstory, check out Charlie Wilson's War, which covered the Stinger missile issue in detail.)

"Game-changer" is a word that gets tossed around a lot with these weapons. They would allow opposition fighters to shoot down the planes currently dropping barrel bombs and (allegedly) chlorine gas on rebel-held towns. They would also allow one, if so inclined, to shoot down a civilian plane as an act of terrorism, which is why the US has been a little hesitant to send them over.

Anyway, head over to Time for the full story. It's not clear, from those quoted, how seriously this idea is being considered. Really only three folks are quoted who would have much knowledge on the subject: John McCain (who is hardly in the White House), a "Congressional aide familiar with the issue" who says "Obama officials" would send the weapons over if they had more control over them, which is why they're "exploring" GPS tracking and remote disabling (again, not clear how close to the debates this source is), and then a former Bush official talking about technical capabilities (see previous parentheses). Who knows, though: Time may also have had people on deep background that aren't quoted in the piece.

The conflict continues.

*GlobalPost correspondent James Foley was kidnapped in northern Syria on Thanksgiving Day 2012 and remains missing. In the interest of Foley’s safety, GlobalPost has not released details of the ongoing investigation to secure his freedom since a statement made in October 2013.