BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — The tragic deaths of 298 people aboard a Malaysian airliner downed over eastern Ukraine might seem a world removed from the escalating conflict in the Middle East.
But in a cruel twist on the butterfly effect, the alleged actions of a scruffy group of Ukrainian separatists may well torpedo proposed assistance to beleaguered rebels in Syria, who are locked in a death struggle with President Bashar al-Assad.
The specter of civilian casualties likely informed the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to temporarily suspend US flights to Israel Tuesday, after a Hamas-fired rocket fell near Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. The FAA has since lifted the ban and as of Thursday Tel Aviv flights resumed.
Now the prospect of weapons falling into the wrong hands is making some officials question the wisdom of furnishing equipment and training to groups over which the United States has limited influence.
President Barack Obama reportedly told aides that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 illustrated why he refused to give Syria’s rebels anti-aircraft weapons. Once such weapons leave US government control, he said, the risk only grows.
On the very day MH17 was blown out of the sky, the US Senate was debating an administration proposal to provide $500 million in aid to Syrian rebels. Even before news of the crash, lawmakers were highly skeptical of the plan.
“Before we vote, I just want to state my incredible ambivalence about this,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “We want to make sure that we are helpful [in Syria], but there needs to be some sense of a better articulated plan and some better safeguards.”
More from GlobalPost: Follow the Meanwhile in Syria blog
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) went even further, asking his colleagues to strike down the proposal.
“I have serious concerns about sending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for equipment and training for Syrian opposition forces,” he wrote in a statement last Thursday. “There’s too much chance these weapons could fall into the hands of extremists and be used against us.”
If that were to happen, the US government would come in for some share of the blame, said Thomas Graham, a senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a managing director of the Kissinger Associates consulting firm.
“Any time you put weapons in the hands of groups you do not totally control, you bear some responsibility,” Graham said. “Any American official will understand the need to be careful, but you can only vet so much.”
An Islamic Front rebel in Syria reloads weapons before fighting government forces in the old city of Aleppo. (Ahmed Deeb/AFP/Getty Images)
There’s cause for concern, as Islamic State extremists, also known as ISIL or ISIS, have shown. They now claim to have established a caliphate over large areas of Iraq and Syria, having also picked up some US weaponry along the way.
“ISIS has already acquired American military equipment through its advance in Iraq,” said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon. “Military vehicles that had originally been supplied by the United States to the Iraqi army were seized by ISIS and brought into Syria, where they have been paraded by ISIS in the streets of Raqqa, their stronghold area.”
Fears that rebel groups might change allegiance are also understandable, she added.
“Just because a military group is considered an ally today does not mean that it will always remain so in the future, as groups can change due to factors like corruption and lack of strong leadership,” Khatib said.
But Khatib is among the experts who contend that such considerations should not stop the US from stepping in to help. The Syrian aid proposal being debated in US Congress establishes adequate procedures for vetting the militants, she argues, minimizing the risk.
“The downing of MH17 should not have an impact on US assistance to Syrian rebels,” Khatib said. “The important factor is that whenever the US grants any entity military aid, this aid should be coupled with measures to ensure long-term transparency and accountability by those supported groups and their political leaders, as well as sustained engagement by the United States to ensure that those measures are implemented.”
The assistance must also be sufficient to enable those groups to hang on to their equipment, she added. “Otherwise supported groups might become too weak and exposed to having their newly acquired weapons seized by enemy groups,” Khatib said.
That’s where the White House’s proposal falls down, according to Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.”
“The Obama plan is not serious,” he told GlobalPost. “It is small scale, calling for training 2,300 rebels in 18 months. God knows where Syria will be in 18 months.”
As for the risk of weapons falling into the wrong hands, Hamid says it is a gamble worth taking.
“If we do not empower the opposition in Syria are we prepared to go in ourselves?”
“No one ever said it would be risk-free; any bold proposal is risky,” he said. “You have to balance the risks. I happen to think that the status quo is risky. It further destabilizes the region. The spillover from Syria ended the state of Iraq and enabled the rise of ISIS.”
In any case, there’s no chance Syrian rebels would acquire the capability of hitting a commercial airliner, said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“No one would provide Syria with SA-11s,” he said, referring to the anti-aircraft system that analysts say brought down the Malaysian airliner, which was flying at an altitude of 33,000 feet when it was hit. “Only Russia is crazy enough for that.”
The US is convinced that Moscow supplied the SA-11, also known as Buk, that officials say was launched from a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed separatists.
What Syria’s rebels need are shoulder-fired weapons and other anti-aircraft devices that could shoot down Assad’s helicopters, he added. That would stop the carnage being visited upon rebel communities by “barrel bombs” and other types of death from the sky.
“If we do not empower the opposition [in Syria] are we prepared to go in ourselves?” Tabler asked. “The danger is not going to go away. Are we ready to give Iran hegemony in the region?”
Iran has been a staunch ally of Assad, as has Russia, he pointed out. Failing to help the rebels would entail more than letting Syria dissolve into chaos. It risks seeing America’s standing in the world take a huge nosedive.
“Last September’s non-strike caused a lot of damage,” Tabler said. He was referring to the crisis last fall, when the US threatened, but did not carry out, airstrikes on Assad’s forces in retaliation for their alleged use of chemical weapons against their own people. “I have been all over the world since then, and it is amazing how often it comes up.”
By setting a “red line” and failing to follow through, he added, Obama signaled that the US was no longer engaged.
“It is strange for the US to stand back and do so little,” Tabler said. “It is very worrisome. It has emboldened Assad.”
Islamic State fighters have issued vague but still troubling threats to strike the West. If extremists manage to stage an attack, the events could be catastrophic.
“Once we do have to go in, it will be 10 times worse than if we had done something earlier,” Tabler said.
“Is America’s involvement with the world over? If so, the world seems a much less safe place,” he added. “The future looks very grim.”