Syrian rebels seek U.S. antiaircraft missiles

WASHINGTON—The leader of Syria’s main political opposition group will ask a reluctant Obama administration to entrust a group of specially trained rebels with a limited number of shoulder-fired antiaircraft weapons known as Manpads.

Ahead of talks at the White House this week, Ahmed Jarba said in an interview that he will ask the U.S. to either provide the advanced antiaircraft weapons directly to the opposition or to give a green light to another country to provide the systems. Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies in the region have Manpads.

Mr. Jarba said a handpicked group of trusted rebel officers, who defected to the opposition from the Syrian army, already know how to use antiaircraft weapons and could be moved into place quickly to deploy them.

He said stringent safeguards would be put in place to ensure the weapons can’t fall into the hands of al Qaeda-linked militants. He added that he will assure the White House the moderate and secular-leaning Free Syrian Army is committed to defeating al Qaeda’s allies.

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In addition to tightly-controlling the quantity of Manpads in rebel hands, aides to Mr. Jarba said the specially-trained officers who would be allowed to employ them on the battlefield would be required to film each weapon’s serial number before and after use.

“Our mission is to convince the U.S. to give us those weapons, or to convince them to allow our friends to provide us with those weapons,” Mr. Jarba said in an interview on Sunday. “We want a limited quantity, which would be used very specifically.”

Mr. Jarba said the goal would be to shoot down several of the regime’s helicopters and fighter planes to prevent them from continuing to drop so-called barrel bombs on population centers, a tactic that the West has condemned.

“If and when one day we were able to bring down 10 helicopters, the regime would have a different calculation, it would think twice before continuing to send in the air force,” Mr. Jarba said.

Mr. Jarba plans to meet with Pentagon officials Monday. He will wrap up his first official visit to Washington on Tuesday with meetings at the White House. President Barack Obama is expected to drop by the White House meeting.

The Obama administration has so far balked at providing any shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles to the opposition, citing the risk that they could inadvertently be used by terrorists to attack the U.S., its allies or civilian aircraft.

“We have not changed our position,” said White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan. “We have made very clear publicly our concerns about this particular system because it has a proliferation risk that does not serve our interests.”

Administration officials haven’t ruled out the possibility that other governments in the region, such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, could decide to provide such weapons to the opposition, though they are unlikely to do so without Washington’s blessing.

Mr. Jarba said a recent U.S.-Saudi program that has provided handpicked rebels with a limited number of advanced antitank weapons was an “experiment” designed to build trust.

“It’s a very good beginning and we are hoping to receive more,” Mr. Jarba said of the provision of TOW armor-piercing antitank systems.