U.S.’s decision to join a group of European and Arab countries in recognizing the legitimacy of Syrian opposition has reopened the issue of whether Washington should also lift the arms embargo and provide lethal support to the Syrian opposition. France has been supporting this idea for a while and Qatar is already providing some weapons to the rebels. However, Victoria Nuland, State Department Spokesperson, has reiterated quite a few times that the U.S. is not going to go beyond non-lethal support. Furthermore, State Department continues to isolate radicals among the opposition – jihadist Al-Nusra Front has been added to the blacklist of foreign terror organizations linked to Al-Qaeda and the Treasury has imposed sanctions against their leaders. It is obvious that the State Department is being extra cautious and is trying to learn from the Libyan experience. According to unspecified sources, during the height of Libyan rebellion U.S. has approved a secret arms transfer through Qatar to Libyan rebels, some of which, according to counterterrorism agencies, ended up in the hands of radical groups. These allegations led several retired military and intelligence officials to speculate that there could have been some links between those secretly transferred weapons and the terrorist attack in Benghazi.
Administration’s prudence definitely deserves laudation. But the question is how lasting and foresighted this vigilance is. It is not yet clear how long will White House resist the temptation of providing arms to the opposition. And even if it will manage to resist till the end, direct arms transfer is not the only way American arms can reach the rebels. Gulf region is saturated by American weapons, as Washington is obviously not as cautious of signing arms deals worth billions of dollars with various Gulf countries.
Despite the world economic crisis, global arms sales almost doubled last year and U.S.’s share in 2011 increased to almost 80% of the market. Out of $85.3 billion of global annual trade budget, U.S. received $66.3 billion. Russia remains the second biggest arms provider on the global market, but her share has reduced from 24% in 2010 to only 6% in 2011. Most of these arms went to the developing world. The biggest importer of U.S. arms is Saudi Arabia. It purchased almost half of all U.S.’s arms exports in 2011. Other major importers in the region are the UAE, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, and of course Israel. Most of the arms sold to these countries are described as defensive, aimed at increasing Gulf countries’ defensive capabilities against Iran. But besides the antimissile batteries and missile defense systems, these countries are also procuring vast numbers of F-15 and F-16 fighters, various ammunitions, missiles, and other conventional weapons, which can easily end up in the hands of all groups of Syrian rebels, even if the U.S. is not intending to support them directly. And this is only the unclassified part of the sales. Foreign countries can acquire American-produced arms through several schemes – Foreign Military Sales (FMS), Direct Commercial Sales (DCS), leases of equipment, transfer of excess defense articles (EDA), and emergency draw-downs of weaponry. In addition to sales, arms are being transferred as a part of the foreign assistance. Almost 12% of total U.S. foreign aid is spent on military. The largest of military assistance programs are Foreign Military Financing, which has been providing funds to Israel, Egypt, and Jordan for purchasing American weapons and in exchange, maintaining peace with each other, International Military Education and Training program, and Counter-drug Aid. The biggest chunks of the arms sales are channeled through the FMS. It includes all inter-governmental deals and is absolutely transparent if the deal is worth more than $14 million. It is administered by Pentagon. DCS however is quicker, sometimes even cheaper route and goes through less governmental scrutiny than FMS. Most of the information about the types and quantities traded are easily classified as “confidential business information.”
Senator Richard Lugar has criticized Obama Administration for limiting Congressional engagement in foreign arms trade to the very formal procedures. Previous administrations have engaged Congressional leaders in informal discussions of the terms and conditions of all major deals prior to presenting the final agreement for formal Congressional approval. This practice, according to Sen. Lugar, allowed for much deeper scrutiny of the impact of each deal on U.S.’s foreign policy goals in a given country. One of the consequences of the late, rather unilateral decisions, he argues, has been Government Accountability Office’s findings that there are some inconsistencies between the arms sales to the Gulf States and the U.S. foreign policy goals, as defined by the Pentagon and State Department.