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‘Pilot program’ revealed: Washington sends missiles to Syrian rebels

Published time: May 10, 2014 09:01
Edited time: May 10, 2014 12:20
Rebel fighters fire a machine gun during clashes with pro-government forces on March 18, 2014 in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. (AFP Photo / Tamer Al-Halabi)

Rebel fighters fire a machine gun during clashes with pro-government forces on March 18, 2014 in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. (AFP Photo / Tamer Al-Halabi)

The US is sending missiles to Syrian rebels as part of a “pilot program” to strengthen the opposition, American media reveals. Addressing criticism the US is arming extremist militants, Washington claims its weapons will not “fall into the wrong hands.”

Washington’s new initiative aims to find out whether it can supply opposition forces in Syria with weapons without them falling into the hands of Islamist extremists, American officials told USA Today on condition of anonymity.

"They will try this first and see how it goes" before expanding it, said a former official. According to reports, rebel groups have already received anti-tank missiles, known as TOWs, which are specially designed to destroy tanks and pierce reinforced bunkers.

Rebel fighters prepare to launch an anti-tank missile towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Maaret al-Naaman village, in Idlib April 30, 2014. (Reuters / Rasem Ghareeb)

This latest move by the US comes as the head of the Syrian National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Ahmad Al-Jarba, visits Washington to lobby for more support. Al-Jarba will push for Washington to supply rebel forces with anti-aircraft missiles, the New York Times reports.

In a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry, Al-Jarba emphasized that his coalition was “moderate and inclusive.”

“The coalition's goal is to build a pluralistic, civil state where the majority can live together with the minority in peace,” he said.

Washington has thrown its support behind the Syrian National Coalition, granting the body official foreign mission status in the US. The US government suspended the Syrian embassy, representing the Assad government, earlier in March. In addition, the White House has pledged an extra $27 million to helping the cause of the rebels in Syria.

However, Brian Becker of the anti-war ANSWER coalition, says this money will only go to help the spread of terrorism in the country.

"The opposition in Syria includes notorious terrorist forces and they have used terrorism, of course supported by the United States through proxy forces in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to finance it and arm them, but they have been carrying out terrorist actions," the anti-war activist mentioned.

"The idea that there is a dichotomy between a good opposition and a bad opposition is just a myth in the face of rising public and media attention in the US about the nature of the terrorist organizations that are fighting the Assad government," Becker concluded.

A road sign is seen as Syrian government forces walk in a street on May 9, 2014 in the Christian neighborhood of Hamidiyeh in the old city of Homs after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. (AFP Photo / Youssef Karwashan)

As the US steps up its support for the opposition, the Assad government has scheduled presidential elections for June 3. Bashar Assad will run for re-election against rival candidates Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar, 46, and Hassan bin Abdullah al-Nouri, 54. Elements of the Syrian opposition and Washington have already leveled criticism at the vote, branding it a “farce.”

One senior US administration official denounced the Syrian election as "a parody of democracy," AFP reports. Assad’s decision to hold the elections "rings particularly hollow given that the regime is continuing to attack and massacre the very electorate that is purporting to represent," the official said.

Washington believes the conflict in Syria can only be solved if Assad steps down as president.

Syria was plunged into civil war in 2011 when peaceful uprisings against Assad descended into violence. As a result of the conflict, at least 150,000 people have died and millions more have been displaced and gone into exile. The international community made significant progress last year, when the US and Russia agreed that Syria should destroy its chemical weapons stockpile following an attack in Damascus on August 21 last year.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-UN task force confirmed last week that 92 percent of the weapons stockpile had been removed from the war-torn nation.

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