President Obama announced Friday that about 100 U.S. troops have been deployed to the West African country of Niger, where defense officials said they are setting up a drone base to spy on al-Qaeda fighters in the Sahara.
Drones and spy planes over Africa
Senior U.S. officials have said for months that they would not put U.S. military “boots on the ground” in Mali, an impoverished nation that has been mired in chaos since March, when a U.S.-trained Malian army captain took power in a coup. But U.S. troops are becoming increasingly involved in the conflict from the skies and the rear echelons, where they are supporting French and African forces seeking to stabilize the region.
Obama did not explicitly reveal the drone base in his letter to Congress, but he said the U.S. troops in Niger would “provide support for intelligence collection” and share the intelligence with French forces in Mali.
A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to provide details about military operations, said that the 40 troops who arrived in Niger on Wednesday were almost all Air Force personnel and that their mission was to support drone flights.
The official said drone flights were “imminent” but declined to say whether unarmed, unmanned Predator aircraft had arrived in Niger or how many would be deployed there.
The drones will be based at first in the capital, Niamey. But military officials would like to eventually move them north to the city of Agadez, which is closer to parts of Mali where al-Qaeda cells have taken root.
“That’s a better location for the mission, but it’s not feasible at this point,” the official said, describing Agadez as a frontier city “with logistical challenges.”
The introduction of Predators to Niger fills a gap in U.S. military capabilities over the Sahara, most of which remains beyond the reach of its drone bases in East Africa and southern Europe.
The U.S. military has been flying small turboprop surveillance planes over northern Mali and West Africa for years, but the PC-12 spy aircraft have limited range and lack the sophisticated sensors that Predators carry.
The shift was prompted by the realization that rebel gains across the north of the country over the past year were posing no major threat to the regime in Damascus, said Saleh al-Hamwi, who coordinates the activities of rebel units in the province of Hama with others around the country. But the province of Daraa controls a major route to the capital and is far closer.
“Daraa and Damascus are the key fronts on the revolution, and Damascus is where it is going to end,” he said.
Such is the secrecy surrounding the effort, however, that even those receiving the weapons can’t say with certainty who is supplying them, he said, though it is widely assumed that they are being provided by Saudi Arabia, with the support of its Arab, U.S. and European allies.
“All we can say for sure is that there are some new weapons coming across the border in the south, they are coming with high secrecy and they’re only going to groups that they want,” he said.
The Jordanian government denied any role. There has, however, been a rise in the smuggling of small arms, mostly automatic rifles, across Jordan’s border with Syria, and “Jordan is actively trying to prevent this rise in smuggling,” government spokesman Samih Maytah said.
The snowball effect
Despite the secrecy however, the influx was publicized this month by Eliot Higgins, a British blogger who uses the name Brown Moses and who tracks rebel activity by watching videos rebel units post on YouTube.
In a series of blogs, he noted the appearance in rebel hands of new weapons that almost certainly could not have been captured from government arsenals. They include M-79 anti-tank weapons and M-60 recoilless rifles dating back to the existence of Yugoslavia in the 1980s that the Syrian government does not possess.
He also noted that most of the recipients of the arms appear to be secular or moderate Islamist units of the Free Syrian Army. In a sign of how organized the effort is, he said,one of the recent videos shows members of the local Fajr al-Islam brigade teaching other rebels how to use some of the new weapons.
The items appear to have already begun influencing the course of the war, he said. They have contributed to a sharp escalation of fighting in the Daraa area this year in which opposition fighters have overrun government bases, including several checkpoints along the Jordanian border, a key but long-neglected front.
That, in turn, has enabled the rebels armed with the new equipment to seize weapons and ammunition from captured government facilities, giving them clout over other small groups, mimicking the pattern observed in northern Syria, where the ascendancy of Islamist extremists has snowballed into soaring influence as their military victories mount.
“It’s like what happened with the jihadi groups in Aleppo when they started capturing all these bases and getting the best gear,” he said. “You could call it the Aleppo-ization of Daraa.”
The M-79 anti-tank weapons in particular appear to be giving the rebels new confidence to attack government positions and armor, said Jeff White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who says he also noted the unexpected appearance of the weapons in rebel videos several weeks ago.
“This isn’t a silver bullet that’s going to dramatically shift the equation, but it’s allowing them to inflict more damage on regime forces, and it’s allowing them to have more successes,” he said. “They’re the right kind of weapons, and they’re what the rebels have been asking for.”
To what effect?
It seems unlikely, however, that the influx will be enough to decisively influence the outcome of a raging battle that continues to embrace a broad spectrum of tactics and weaponry, from suicide bombs to Scud missiles, experts say.
Though there have been scattered sightings of the new weapons in other parts of the country, including Aleppo as well as Idlib and Deir al-Zour, in those provinces the battle is primarily being fueled by the significant quantities of weapons that the rebels are capturing from government forces, said Joseph Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War.
The rebels have also been asking for anti-aircraft missiles to counter the government’s use of airpower against their strongholds. But there has been no indication that they are acquiring those in significant quantities outside the few they have captured from government bases, White said.
Hamwi said he suspects the real aim of the international effort is to provide the rebels with just enough firepower to pressure Assad into accepting a negotiated settlement but not enough to enable them to overthrow him. “The international community is using us to put pressure on Bashar,” he said.
Although plans for an offensive on Damascus are being readied, the rebels still lack sufficient firepower to take on government forces there, said Mokdad of the Free Syrian Army. “Even if we are getting weapons, it is not enough,” he said.
Taylor Luck in Amman contributed to this report.