By now the fix is in for Syria. President Obama has laid out his 2 options: Either Bashar al-Assad becomes a Middle Eastern flower child and hands over his chemical weapons to the international community peacefully or The U.S. will use Tomahawks to transform select Syrian targets into glass factories. But then there’s the third, less bandied about option: Supply Syrian rebels with lethal munitions to combat Assad’s forces. It’s a plan that has been in the works since June, but if put in a historical context, it may not be the most beneficial route to travel.
In my last post I had written about the U.S. intervention that ultimately lead Afghanistan’s Mujahideen rebels to upend the the invading Soviet forces. A key deciding factor to the Kremlin bashing in Kabul was the weapon that The United States supplied to the Afghan rebels - The FIM-92 Stinger. The MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defense System) missile weighed in at 35 lbs of commie crushing power, traveled at a pace of 1,500 mph, and would haunt the Russians until wars-end.
Prior to the introduction of the Stinger, the Mujahideen forces arsenal of AK-47’s and weaponized Kajagoogoo records paled in comparison to the Soviet’s arial onslaught. But in 1986, the new projectile would turn the tables. The once hapless rebels could now make mincemeat of the arial death machines from up to 5 miles away with the missiles heat-seeking sensors. Couple the Mujahideen’s newly found land-to-air dominance with the fact that Soviet tanks had been rendered worthless due to Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain, the rebels were able to follow their U.S. supplied itchy trigger finger to victory road.
Nothing beats a happy ending. So, what bookends this touching tale of cooperation? The Mujahadeen handed over the unused Stinger rockets to the outstretched arms of The U.S., who then tucked the inanimate war heroes into bed to retire to a hero’s glory.
Well, not quite. What actually happened was the United States government had to don the hat akin to a disgruntled librarian and go on a witch hunt to recover it’s absent property. Operation Missing in Action Stingers (I did not make that up) was launched in 1990 with a budget of $65 million, and it tasked the CIA with hunting down every last Stinger missile. Alas, like any hunt for 80’s memorabilia, the item sought proved illusive and terribly overpriced. The missiles were selling for up to a whopping $100,000 a piece, and by the mid-90’s an estimated 600 Stingers were still unaccounted for, with the search still ongoing into the most recent war in Afghanistan.
Now we sit and nurse the idea of opening and arms bazaar once again, potentially learning nothing from history. In trying to nudge the president down this path, Senator Carl Levin opined that the weapons would go to “vetted” groups amongst the Syrian rebels, supplying them with an arsenal that couldn’t be turned on us. But doesn’t this lack a sense of foresight? The history of the Stinger shows that there is more damage that can be done from your weapons than just having them turned on you. Lost missiles turned up in the hands of militant groups, were purchased by aggressor governments such as North Korea, and have been dissected by the Chinese to learn their inner workings. Not to mention the large search-and-recover costs. All of this played against the United State’s best interests, even though it wasn’t through direct physical violence.
And that was all in the 1980’s-90’s. The world has become an even more globalized and borderless place since, letting any possible errant weaponry supplied to the Syrian rebels travel with much more ease. So now the question stands: Are lethal instruments slipping through the cracks worth it to combat a potential national security threat? Or is it replacing one national security threat with another? In both the 80’s and today we seemingly answered yes to the first , and now we watch to see if history does indeed repeat itself.