PARIS (AP) — France’s government is investigating high-tech methods to prevent terrorists from using any weapons that Western governments send to Syrian rebels, such as gadgetry that tracks the movement of anti-aircraft missiles or shuts them down from a distance, officials say.
Such controls could be crucial to overcoming fears about arming the rebels — and to shifting the balance in Syria’s civil war, which has left tens of thousands of people dead. A major fear of the U.S. and its allies is that terrorists could get hold of any missiles delivered to the rebels and use them to target commercial planes.
Experts and officials say that no technological tricks to remotely track shoulder-fired missiles will be 100 percent fail-safe, and it may be a while before they’re ready to use. Still, studying them is one more indication that France is moving closer to supplying arms and getting the West more deeply involved in the war.
Pressure has been mounting for a more robust response to the Syria crisis this week, after President Bashar Assad’s army captured the strategic town of Qusair and France and Britain announced they have proof that Assad’s regime used chemical weapons. The two European allies pushed the EU to lift its arms embargo last week.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius spoke Wednesday of “a weapons imbalance because Mr. Bashar Al-Assad has planes, etc., and the resistance fighters don’t have the same means.”
“As much as we are working for a political solution,” he told France-24 TV, “on the ground things have to be rebalanced.”
One way could be through delivery of shoulder-fired MANPADs — man-portable-air-defense-systems — like the Stinger missiles that the United States sent to Afghan fighters during their 1980s war against the Soviet Union. But the missiles are tough to track, and could be troublesome if they fall into the wrong hands. Some are small enough to fit into a golf bag.
Speaking before a parliamentary panel last week, Fabius said: “There is, in some cases, a technical possibility, because there are such-and-such types of arms that can be … triggered in some conditions, and neutralized in other conditions.”
He didn’t elaborate, and — like some other diplomats grappling with the crisis — could simply be posturing to try to give a jolt to prospective peace talks.
But a French diplomatic official, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, told The Associated Press that three main options are being considered when it comes to possibly arming the rebels: weapons that stop working after a specified time; weapons traceable by GPS; and weapons that can be “deactivated at a distance.”
“We’re studying everything we can to have good traceability,” the official said. “We’re quite aware it’s a risk … but at the same time, 100,000 people have been killed, Hezbollah has increased its involvement, and we aren’t adding risk to risk. It’s already a calamitous situation, and the question is how we get out of it.”
French Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry spokespeople declined to comment on weapons-tracking technology, saying it’s a sensitive national security issue. British officials declined to comment on the types of weapons that could be provided, because they say no decision has yet been taken on whether to arm the opposition. British and French diplomats are looking toward U.S.- and Russian-mediated peace negotiations planned in the coming weeks in Geneva.
A representative of MBDA, one of Europe’s top missile makers, said that missiles aren’t manufactured with such controls, but once sold, the buyer — usually governments — could carry out such alterations. She spoke on condition of anonymity because of company policy.
Matt Schroeder, director of the arms sales monitoring project at the Federation of American Scientists, said that technology known as “controllable enablers” could restrict the use of anti-aircraft missiles, including limited-duration weapons and GPS-based systems that could limit the missiles’ range.
He said putting controllable enablers in missile systems is feasible in terms of existing technology, and that it could amount to “an effective control measure.”
Some technological limits could involve equipping the missiles with batteries that run out of power after a certain time, requiring a code to activate them, and even being outfitted in such a way that the weapons would be disabled if Western military planes or civilian aircraft were nearby, according to analysts and defense officials.
“But if you are really concerned about diversion (of weapons into the wrong hands), none of them alone is sufficient,” Schroeder said. He suggested that some savvy terrorists could outsmart the smart controls.
Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says governments would likely be quiet about any technological tinkering that could help keep MANPADs from falling into criminal hands.
“As far as I know, the actual production of such systems has certainly not taken place in the U.S.,” he said by phone from Washington. “But this is an area where if it is done, the activity, the production and the design would be kept classified … You don’t want to give the slightest indication to anyone in advance of what technology you use, because there are always countermeasures.”
Syria is awash with weapons, including shoulder-fired missiles that have already reached rebel fighters — though it is not clear if they know how to use the weapons, or even if they work.
The idea behind the controls that France is studying would be to monitor who receives the weapons, track when and how they are used, and disable them if they are acquired by terrorists.
Some MANPADs are believed to have made their way out of the arsenal of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi into the open market, and the CIA has sought to keep the weapons away from al-Qaida sympathizers throughout the region, including the Al-Nusra Front in Syria — the most potent force fighting Assad’s troops.
French authorities have already “tested” a number of networks through which France has funneled non-lethal equipment — medical gear, protective equipment, and means of encrypted communications — to the rebels, “requiring the recipients of our help to account for the use of what we give,” said French Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot.
British Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday defended the push to lift the EU arms embargo. “There are clear safeguards to ensure that any such equipment would only be supplied for the protection of civilians, and in accordance with international law,” he said.
The Western-backed umbrella group of rebel brigades known as the Free Syrian Army says it needs anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to better challenge Assad’s firepower. The rebels, and many Syrian civilians, have faced a pounding from Assad’s air power.
One concern would be if extremists use anti-aircraft missiles against commercial planes, a potentially vulnerable target in a chaotic Middle East. Al-Qaida-linked terrorists are believed to have fired two SA-7 missiles that narrowly missed an Israeli passenger jet after it took off from Mombasa, Kenya, in November 2002. Schroeder, of FAS, said some SA-7s are known to be in Syria.
The fresh memory of Libya’s war in 2011 also weighs on European diplomats. Some weapons delivered to resistance fighters battling Gadhafi’s regime two years ago later ended up “in the hands of terrorist groups fought by French troops in northern Mali” after France’s intervention this year against al-Qaida-linked militants in that West African country, Lalliot said.
Associated Press Writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.