06/17/2013 11:13 am ET Updated Aug 17, 2013

The First Real Test for Moderates in the Syrian Opposition

On June 14, the Obama administration announced that it would supply rebels with limited military aid, citing the confirmation of chemical weapons usage by the Assad regime in several instances over the past year. This unprecedented public acknowledgement follows the capture of the town of Qusayr by pro-Assad regime forces and regime advances in several key fronts.

Reports indicate that U.S. intelligence agencies have expanded a pre-existing network of command-and-control centers in Jordan and Turkey to facilitate the transfer of weapons to vetted rebel groups under the umbrella of the Supreme Military Council (SMC), led by former Syrian army commander Salim Idris.

U.S. intelligence officials have since cited that their ties with moderate rebel groups had increased in recent months, with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) having established a section devoted to vetting and assisting possible partners in Syria. A senior source in the region, however, said the military aid will remain limited to automatic weapons, light mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) for the time being. Anti-tank missiles are reportedly being considered, while rebel requests for anti-aircraft missiles have been denied.

The announcement also comes as Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah said on June 14 that his forces would continue fighting in Syria wherever needed, and speculation that Iran has increased its financial and military support for the Assad regime.

Hezbollah's overtly key role in enabling the Assad regime to capture Qusayr on June 5 has led to an increase in criticism from prominent Sunni politicians and religious figures in the region. On June 2, Qatari-based hardline cleric Yousef Qaradawi called for jihad against Hezbollah, while Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi held a mass rally in support of Syrian rebels on June 14, announcing the complete severing of ties with the Assad regime. That same day, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia shortened his trip to Morocco due to concerns over the Syrian crisis. Meanwhile, Sunni Islamist activist groups have held anti-Hezbollah protests at Lebanese embassies across the region.

The decision to directly and openly supply light weapons to Syrian rebel groups resulted primarily from concerns over recent Assad regime advances in Qusayr, and a pending campaign in the city of Aleppo. In this context, the Obama administration's rhetoric over chemical weapons usage was likely timed in order to garner popular support and legitimization for a more assertive policy in Syria. The Obama administration has long shared Israeli, French, and British assessments that chemical weapons had been used, but has maintained the understanding that the Assad regime's growing conventional capabilities pose a far greater threat to the survivability of the Syrian opposition under current conditions.

Another main factor in the U.S. decision to take a more visibly assertive role in Syria are concerns that its inaction may contribute to a rise in sectarian tensions across the region. Following the participation of the Shiite Hezbollah group in seizing Qusayr, sectarian rhetoric from hard-line Sunni elements has increased region wide. The United States and its allies in Saudi Arabia likely fear that this increase in sectarian rhetoric will boost the standing of Sunni jihadist groups in Syria and elsewhere in the region.

Since the conflict began in 2011, the growing influence of jihadist groups in Syria has been attributed to a lack of support from Western and moderate powers in the region. Many rebel groups have shifted to radical ideologies to acquire funds and weapons from hard line individual donors in the Persian Gulf and North Africa. By bolstering the SMC, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia likely hope to incentivize rebel groups to become more moderate in their ideologies in order to meet their requirements for future military aid.

During talks with U.S. officials, SMC leader Salim Idris reportedly presented a list of weapons needed to defend against Assad regime advances, particularly in the city of Aleppo. Among his requests were the provision of 100 portable anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADS), anti-tank missiles, and other sophisticated weapons needed to neutralize the Assad regime's air and armored forces. The U.S. has since denied these requests, limiting the current aid package to unguided rocket-propelled grenades (RPG), mortars, and firearms.

Under current conditions, the provision of the aforementioned weapons will unlikely enable the Syrian rebels to counter the Assad regime's key advantages, which remain the air force, armored corps, and artillery corps. Such weapons will, however, help to slow any future Assad regime or Hezbollah advance inside major cities such as Aleppo, Hama, and Homs. As witnessed in the Qusayr campaign, the Syrian military and Hezbollah resorted to gradual advances in each district of the city with ground troops, with rebel ambushes in urban settings helping to slow these advances.

In the long term, the Syrian rebels will be unable to advance within Aleppo, Homs, Idlib, or Damascus Provinces without the ability to neutralize the aforementioned advantages of the Syrian military.

In the coming weeks and months, the United States is likely gauge the ability of the SMC and other moderate rebels to consolidate their command. Among the primary concerns of the U.S. during this period is that weapons provided will reach radical jihadist groups, or increase the existing rivalries amongst rebels. The lack of available weapons throughout the conflict has led to feuding between rebel groups, in addition to the emergence of a lucrative black market. Jihadist groups remain well funded by private donors in the region, and the U.S. is likely concerned that they may attempt to purchase delivered weapons from moderate rebels.

Should the SMC prove that it can contain the flow of U.S.-provided weapons and use them effectively in combat; the Obama administration will likely become increasingly willing to provide advanced anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles.

Ultimately, however, the Obama administration has not abandoned the notion of a political solution and still seeks to work with Russia to ease Assad out of power and contain the conflict from spiraling out of control. In the event that efforts to organize a viable peace conference falter completely, the United States will likely consider boosting its military involvement, both in terms of aid to the rebels and the bolstering of a military presence in Jordan. In this context, plans to deploy Patriot anti-aircraft missiles and F-16 fighter planes in Jordan are likely meant as a signal to Russia that an increased U.S. presence in the region will result from a failure of the political process.