Syrian rebels in Aleppo
Syrian rebels in AleppoReuters

The White House is debating handing rebels a deadly weapon to fight Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, in what analysts have dubbed a possible "game-changer." 

Syrian rebels were caught on camera for the first time earlier this month using US-made anti-tank missiles

Now, according to TIME, the White House is considering handing over an even greater weapon to opposition forces: shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, or "manpads" (Man-Portable Air Defense Systems).

The announcement surfaces as extremist factions continue to gain ground in cities rules by opposition forces - heightening tensions in a region already on alert after Assad announced intent to hold presidential elections in June. 

“The introduction of manpads could be a game changer in Syria, like it was in Afghanistan in the 1980s with Stinger missiles,” an Arab official told TIME Tuesday.

Senior officials, meanwhile, have expressed concerns that the move could pave the way for terror attacks on civilian airlines - a scenario former CIA head David Petraeus called the US's "nightmare" and which a 2005 study showed could cause a staggering $15 billion dollar economic loss worldwide as concerned citizens shy away from air travel. 

To balance the danger, the Obama administration is reportedly exploring a number of options, including "building obsolescence" into US-made manpads and setting a remote "kill switch" which could render the weapon useless if it falls into the wrong hands. 

But fears that the missiles could reach the wrong hands may be well founded, experts say, in light of footage in November showing that extremists groups have become adept at shooting down government aircraft - which could turn into target practice for future terror attacks. 

Policy Shift

Reports surfaced as early as March that US President Barack Obama would allow the shoulder-fired weapons to be placed in the hands of opposition forces, following reports that Assad's regime was winning the three-year long conflict. The weapons are capable of bringing down helicopters and low-flying airplanes. 

As noted at the time, allowing manpads to be delivered to Syrian rebels would mark a shift in strategy for the U.S., which until this point has limited its lethal assistance to small-arms and ammunition, as well as humanitarian aid.

There has been pressure to arm the Syrian rebels for quite some time, particularly since the U.S. government confirmed that the Syrian army used chemical weapons against rebel forces on multiple occasions, thus violating the “red line” set by President Obama.

However, lawmakers were - and still are - concerned that weapons could reach factions like the Nusra Front, which has pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Islamist rebel factions such as Al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS)  have performed atrocities during the ongoing civil war, including publicly beheading those accused of collaborating with the Assad regime, and even executing members of rival rebel groups.