Opinion

Bernd Debusmann

The downside of arming Syrian rebels

By Bernd Debusmann
February 23, 2012

As Syrian government forces bombard Homs and other cities with merciless brutality, day after day, calls for arming the opposition are becoming louder. But there is a powerful case for caution, and for thinking twice before good intentions pave the road to even worse hell in Syria.

Most importantly, potential armourers of the opposition need to find answers to a number of key questions. The following exchange at a hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee in mid-February helps explain what is at stake.

Question: “What is the nature of the Syrian opposition? Who are they? How much of this is domestic? How much of it is foreign? What is the regional dynamic? Is al Qaeda involved?”

Answer: “The Free Syrian Army … is not unified. There’s an internal feud about who’s going to lead it. Complicating this … are neighborhood dynamics. We believe that al Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria.”

The question came from Jim Webb, a Democratic Senator with a military background. The answer was from America’s spy chief, James Clapper, who added that extremists had infiltrated Syria’s motley opposition groups which, in many cases, may not be aware of the infiltration.

Bombings in Damascus and in Aleppo, Syria’s second city, against government security and intelligence buildings bore the hallmarks of al Qaeda, he said.

In other words,  what began as peaceful mass demonstrations against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad almost a year ago (the Arab Spring came to Syria later than to other countries in the region) has morphed into parallel movements of mass protests and an armed insurgency whose composition is not entirely clear. It’s clear, though, that anti-Assad forces are outgunned and outmanned. To significantly increase their firepower would require arms supplies on a scale that would virtually guarantee some of the weapons falling into the wrong hands.

U.S. hawks arguing for arms aid, such as John McCain, the Republican senator, might do well to remember that sizable quantities of the military hardware America supplied to anti-Soviet insurgents in Afghanistan ended up in the hands of the Taliban. That conflict appears to have faded from the hawks’ memories and American interventionists now feel the urge to “plunge in with no plans, with half-baked plans, with demands to supply arms to rebels they know nothing about,” Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank, wrote in a column in The Daily Beast.

“Their good intentions could pave the road to hell to Syrians – preserving lives today, but sacrificing many more later.”

“FRIENDS OF SYRIA”

The number of lives being lost has increased sharply after Russia, the Syrian government’s main arms supplier, and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that provided for Assad to step down, hand over power to a deputy, stop killing dissidents and begin a transition to democracy.

The vetoes prompted the formation of a “Friends of Syria” group including the United States, European and Arab countries plus Turkey. They will try to succeed where the Security Council failed – stop Syria from sliding deeper into civil war.

Syria unraveling would not be in the interests of anyone except for al Qaeda, argues Kamran Bokhari, an analyst with the private intelligence company Stratfor, except for.

Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has cheered the anti-Assad opposition and urged Muslims in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan to join the fight. The violent overthrow of “apostate” regimes is the main plank of al Qaeda’s ideology.

Its lack of appeal for the vast majority of Arabs became obvious in the Arab Spring, when people power rather than martyrdom-seeking jihadis brought down authoritarian governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. In Libya, where the Gaddafi dictatorship ended in violence, it was thanks to the help of the United States and NATO, not al Qaeda followers.

Such acts as the Damascus and Aleppo bombings, if indeed they were carried out by al Qaeda militants, serve to keep the conflict going and give Assad, who insists that his government is fighting terrorists, an excuse to crack down even harder. In doing so, he emulates his late father, Hafez. Young Bashar was 17 when Hafez deployed tanks and artillery to flatten the center of the city of Hama to crush a revolt by Sunni Muslims against his Alawite minority regime.

That was in February 1982 and it took 27 days to bomb and shell the city into submission. Estimates of the death toll range from 10,000 to 40,000. No-one was ever held accountable. Hafez al-Assad died in bed, age 69, of pulmonary disease.

His son, 30 years later, is trying to bomb the city of Homs into submission. On Feb. 22 alone, two days before the “Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunis, activists inside the beleaguered city reported 80 people killed, including two Western journalists. Grim video clips of hollow-eyed, fear-stricken women and children huddling in shelters touch even the hardest heart.

But whether shipping more arms to the opposition is the best way out of the crisis remains open to debate.

PHOTO: A Syrian opposition member shouts slogans as he holds posters against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and to express solidarity with Syria’s anti-government people in Homs, during a sit-in organized by the March 14 allies in Beirut, February 22, 2012. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

Comments
7 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

The end result of the Arab Spring was to eliminate secular, Dictatorships somewhat friendly to the West by Islamic {intolerant} dominated governments who are not friendly to the West.

Posted by authentic | Report as abusive
 

Remember the last time we armed the rebels in Afghanistan?
Those rebels were called Al Qaeda.

Posted by CommonSensLogic | Report as abusive
 

Remember how the French were the first to arm the Libyan rebels. Now the new Libyan government is unabashed in proclaiming that it is giving priority and better deals of oil to the French. And civilians linked to the former regime are suffering human rights violation.

Like “Blood Diamonds”, this is “Bloody Oil”. We should have no part of it.

Posted by Janeallen | Report as abusive
 

Arming the Mujahideen in Afghanistan is only the most obvious of 50+ years of backlash in arming opposition forces. We have a long, messy history of fighting proxy wars via arms and supplies… and we’re bad at it.

I know its tempting to poke our noses into everything and make sure the good guys win and bad guys lose, but the good guys and bad guys trade places every few years. Can we please, please have someone on our side playing the long game for once?

Posted by spall78 | Report as abusive
 

I believe that these journalists and photographers are brave and sympathize
to their families.
However, the assertion that they have been ” murdered” by the
Syrian regime is a provocation and does not surve
their memory well.

The journalists were embedded with the insurgents after illegally
crossing the border.There is no proof that the Syrians knew their
existence.
We should not shed crocodile tears for the Syrian people since:

1 We support the jihadists,mercenaries and Al Qaeda elements
who killed a lot of innocent people and bomb a hospital.
The same from 9/11 Iraq and Libya.
Do we want them to be in charge in Syria?

2 We support the most oppressive regimes in the region
Including Saudis and Bahrain with their recent massacres in
the Eastern Province.

I agree with Ron Paul we shoud cut the pork for all oppressive
Regimes in the MEast and bring our soldiers home.

Posted by Irgun | Report as abusive
 

All this is a strange twisted chapter of the Iran / Israel crisis. Syria is Iran’s closest ally on the Mediterranean.

Israel threaten Iran. Iran threatens Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the USA ship arms to Sunni rebels in Syria to rebel against the Shia friendly Alawite Baathist government there. There is no plan other than to harass Iran before Iran can arm the Shiite peoples of Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.

This is a perfect instance where the only sane response is to run away as fast as possible. There can be no win if we get involved, just as in Iraq and in Afghanistan. We will be used by everyone around, all of whom will abandon us when the going gets tough and ugly. Ever gone Snipe hunting? This is a snipe hunt.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive
 

No Muslim country has accepted Al Qaeda as a significant power within its society. The Iraqis rejected them. The Saudis clearly despise them. So who cares if they have a marginal role in the Syrian uprising? And who cares if a few stray AK-47s end up in Al Qaeda’s possession? Does anyone really think that they suffer from a shortage of small arms?
Attempting to prophesize events after an event that has not yet occurred is nothing more than lame excuse-making. As in Libya, the hated dictator must be removed first. Once that occurs, then the Syrians and their allies can start to form a new government. The rebels need assistance now, before it’s too late.

Posted by mheld45 | Report as abusive
 

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