Arming Syrian rebels fraught with risk

By Hugo Dixon
June 3, 2013

The UK, France and maybe America are edging towards a policy of arming Syria’s “moderate” rebels if planned peace talks with the Assad regime don’t produce a breakthrough. The idea would be to tilt the civil war in favour of moderates and against both Assad’s Iranian-backed regime and al Qaeda-style jihadists. But the scheme, while superficially attractive, is fraught with risk.

The West’s three nuclear powers clearly don’t have much appetite for intervention in Syria. Nobody is pushing for an Iraqi or Afghan-style invasion. There is also precious little desire to impose a Libyan-style no-fly zone – not least because it would be impossible to get United Nations’ authority for such a policy given Russia’s steadfast support for the Assad regime.

The West is anyway struggling to clarify why it should get involved in this increasingly grisly sectarian war. Syria doesn’t have much oil or gas, unlike Libya and Iraq. Nor is Assad threatening the West with al Qaeda-style attacks. It could even be argued, on the basis of realpolitik, that it could be in the West’s interests if Sunni jihadists and the Iran-Assad-Hezbollah Shi’ite axis exhausted each other in an orgy of mutual destruction.

There are, though, two reasons why the West might not wish to stand by as the death toll, already over 80,000, climbs ever higher. First, civil wars have a tendency to drag on. The one in neighbouring Lebanon, where I spent last week, lasted 15 years and left over 120,000 dead. Given Syria is about five times Lebanon’s size, a similar rate of killing would result in more than 600,000 deaths. Although humanitarian considerations are rarely the driver of foreign policy, it would be good if Western intervention really could cut the killing of innocent people – admittedly a big “if”.

The second, more hard-headed reason for the West not washing its hands of Syria is concern for spillover effects. There are already signs of Lebanon being sucked into the conflict: Hezbollah-dominated areas have seen rocket attacks and skirmishes with Syrian rebels in recent days.

If an al Qaeda-style regime were to take control of Damascus, with its presumed huge stash of chemical weapons, who knows what havoc it would wreak? It might not be just Israel that would feel the heat on its border given that many Sunni jihadists see their mission as global.

Such thinking seems to be behind the emerging plan to arm the moderate rebels. This would be intervention on the cheap, since it would not involve the West committing its own soldiers or weapons to the fight. Britain and France last week succeeded in lifting a European Union embargo on weapons sales, despite strong opposition from other European nations which want to keep out of the conflict completely.

Before pressing the button, the UK, France and possibly America (whose position on arms supplies is not clear) want to give peace one last chance. They are trying, so far without much success, to get Assad and the moderates (principally the Syrian National Coalition) round the negotiating table.

The prospect of supplying weapons is, in turn, being used as a carrot and stick to advance the peace talks. The moderates have an incentive to play ball because, otherwise, they won’t get weapons. Assad has an incentive to take part; otherwise his enemies will be better armed.

The snag is that nobody is holding out much hope for the peace talks. And the corollary of failure is that Western weapons supplies would then roll into Syria.

Advocates of such a policy argue that there is a triangular contest in Syria. In one corner is Assad, armed by Russia and Iran, and supported by foreign Shi’ite fighters – mainly from Iraq and Lebanon (in the form of Hezbollah). In another corner are the jihadists, financed by money from the Gulf, and supported by Sunni fighters from the Muslim world.

In the third corner are the moderates, who aren’t getting much help from anywhere. They are mainly Sunni too. And they are sometimes fighting alongside the jihadists against Assad. But because they are poorly resourced, they have failed to make much headway against Assad, while the jihadists have taken an increasingly important role in the revolution.

The idea is that, if the moderates are properly armed, they will not only start winning against Assad. They will also be able to edge aside the jihadists. There is also a parallel attempt by Saudi Arabia to channel money from the Gulf to moderates. Although staunchly Sunni, it saw how its original help for al Qaeda in Afghanistan boomeranged into an attempt to foment revolution at home.

Advocates of the pro-moderate policy don’t deny that some of the presumably fairly sophisticated weapons intended for moderates may end up in the hands of jihadists. Nor do they deny that Iran and Russia may react by stepping up their own arms supplies to Assad, with the result that the pace of killing will increase. Their argument, rather, is that conflict will end sooner and that whatever comes after Assad is more likely to be pro-Western.

While that is certainly possible, there are other scenarios. One is that the so-called moderates – who aren’t Western-style liberal democrats to start off with – may become radicalised as the conflict goes on. So a victory for them might not be so good for the West after all.

Another worry is that it may be too late to turn the tide in the moderates’ favour. If so, they may eventually decide to throw their lot in with the jihadists – taking their sophisticated weapons with them. Syria would then turn from a triangular contest into a bilateral one. The West, having unwittingly armed the jihadists, might ultimately conclude it would have been better off with Assad.

Yet another concern is that weaponry intended for Syria won’t stay there. It could be redeployed in other countries, creating yet more carnage – and possibly threatening the West’s interests more directly.

It is for these reasons that most European countries – and, until recently, even Britain, France and America – have been opposed to arming the rebels.

Two years ago the Syrian rebels were pursuing almost entirely nonviolent tactics to unseat Assad. He then cracked down so brutally that the revolution became militarised. Many of the nonviolent activists were killed; others resorted to violence themselves; yet others moved out of the struggle because there wasn’t room for them.

There are, though, still Syrians who would like to find a way of living together in peace. Now may not be the time for demonstrations and protests of the sort that are now racking Istanbul’s Taksim Square. But nonviolent activists can still play a role in building the institutions of a civil society. It is a shame that the West has spent so little effort identifying and supporting these people. They may be able to influence the conflict as it progresses – and they will be sorely needed if a peaceful Syria is ever to be rebuilt.

8 comments

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And, notwithstanding the religious “cleansing” of Christians in the rebel strongholds. The same Christians who were historically protected under Assad.

Providing military support of any kind to either side will only ensure the United States will become embroiled in a no-win situation. Should we provide any support, then we will have learned nothing from Iraq or Afghanistan. On this one, John McCain is very wrong.

Sometimes there is not a “better alternative”; and one can only observe, letting the forces of evil on both sides ensure their own destruction.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

Civil Wars “drag on” if rebellious elements are provided the non-lethal and lethal means to continue the fight. This is especially so in a country such as Syria. A country that certainly has the government organization, police, and military means to suppress the anti-Assad forces and others bent upon establishing a new order in Syria.

This civil war needs to come to a close. The EU and the US need to disengage. We have dealt with Assad for the better part of 20 years, and we dealt with his father for decades prior to that. Rebellion against a government does not mean the US and/or the EU has to intervene on the side of the anti-government forces. If so, we should soon begin arming anti-government forces in Turkey.

The Syrian rebels are by no means clean relevant to civilian deaths. They are not clean relevant to torture and the murder of Syrian governement and military prisoners. To paint this picture differently would be a lie.

Posted by bald1 | Report as abusive

But – but – but Condi Rice said on CBS national news last night that the US cannot sit on the sidelines! Can you hear the beat of the war drums yet? They’re coming.

Heck – the military will be leaving Afghanistan soon so we have to do something with the troops and equipment, right?

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

Way too little, way too late!

Assad is nearly back in control of Syria, which is a good thing, since it takes the temptation to get involved out of our hands.

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Battle for Damascus is over. Is Israel intelligence slow on Syrian war?
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report June 4, 2013, 11:25 AM (IDT)
Tags: Israel intelligence, Syrian war, Moshe Yaalon, Hizballah, Golan,
Syrian tanks in Damascus

When Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon informed a Knesset panel Monday, June 3, that Syrian rebels still occupied four Damascus districts, debkafile’s intelligence sources reported that the battle for the Syrian capital was all but over. Barring small pockets of resistance, Bashar Assad’s army had virtually regained control of the city in an epic victory. From those pockets, the rebels can’t do much more than fire sporadically. They can no longer launch raids, or pose threats to the city center, the airport or the big Syrian air base nearby.
The Russian and Iranian transports constantly bringing replenishments for keeping the Syrian army fighting can again land at Damascus airport after months of rebel siege.
The rebels fell back in Damascus after being outflanked in a pincer movement in Damascus’s eastern outskirts executed by the Syrian army’s 4th and 3rd Divisions and a “Fuji” commando unit . Most of the rebels were pushed outside the city.

debkafile’s military sources report that, as of Tuesday, June 4, Assad’s army controls all the capital’s road connections and its western districts. It has also cleared opposition forces out of areas west of Damascus through the Zabadni region and up to the Lebanese border.
To the northwest, Hizballah and Syrian units have tightened their siege on the rebels holding out in the northern sector of al Qusayr; other units have completed their takeover of the countryside around the town of Hama; and a third combined Syrian-Hizballah force has taken up positions around Aleppo.
Senior IDF officers criticized the defense minister’s briefing on Syria Monday to the Knesset Foreign and Defense Committee in which he estimated that Bashar Assad controlled only 40 percent of Syrian territory as misleading. They said he had drawn on a flawed intelligence assessment and were concerned that the armed forces were acting on the basis of inaccurate intelligence. Erroneous assessments, they feared, must lead to faulty decision-making. They cited two instances:

1. On May 5, the massive Israeli bombardment of Iranian weapons stored near Damascus for Hizballah, turned out a month later to have done more harm than good. It gave Bashar Assad a boost instead of weakening his resolve.
2. Israel has laid itself open to unpleasant surprises by its focused watch on military movements in Syria especially around Damascus to ascertain that advanced missiles and chemical weapons don’t reach Hizballah. Missed, for instance, was the major movement by Hizballah militia units towards the Syrian-Israeli border. Our military sources report a Hizballah force is currently deployed outside Deraa, capital of the southern Syrian province of Horan. Reinforcements are streaming in from Lebanon. The Hizballah force and Syrian units are getting ready to move in on the rural Horan and reach the Israeli border nearby through the Syrian Golan.

Their coming offensive, which could be only days away, will find Israeli face to face for the first time with Hizballah units equipped with heavy arms and missiles on the move along the Syrian-Israeli border and manning positions opposite Israel’s Golan outposts and villages.
The early calculus that the Syrian battlefield would erode Hizballah’s strength held Israel back from obstructing the flow of Hizballah military strength into Syria. It has been proven wrong.

Instead of growing weaker, Iran’s Lebanese proxy is poised to open another warfront and force the IDF to adapt to a new military challenge from the Syrian Golan.
Unlike its previous wars against Israel, this time Hizballah will not confront Israel alone. On May 30, when the Syrian ruler spoke of “popular” demands to mount “resistance” operations against Israel from the Golan, he didn’t mention Hizballah because he was referring to demands coming from inside Syria.

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http://www.debka.com/article/23017/Battl e-for-Damascus-is-over-Is-Israel-intelli gence-slow-on-Syrian-war-

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

If the West wants to play a positive role, all it needs to do is STAY OUT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

@ Econ. Good analysis, however I will take exception to the last paragraph.

Assad now has to rebuild his country, re-assimilate and support over 1.0 million refugees upon their return, while maintaining on-going military action against remnants of Al Queda and other rebel factions. Taking on Israel, even with the support of Hezbollah, assumes Assad has unlimited military and financial resources. Assad does not. Nor do I think the people of Syria will readily embrace a war in which they have a choice not to initiate.

The physical rebuilding of the country and establishing some sense of security for the general population will be a ten year process (see Iraq). It will not be pretty or easy, and the first thing he will have to do is crack down hard on any and all opposition.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

“We have dealt with Assad for the better part of 20 years”

Not true.

“and we dealt with his father for decades prior to that.”

29 years to be exact. But the father rather dealt with Russia not the US.

This is proof that most people talking about Syria do not know what they’re talking about. Assad has only been there since 2000. That 13 years not 20. And during all that time the US hasn’t “deal with Assad or his father”. The US only wants to take over Syria to deprive Iran and Russia of their only true ally in the Arab world and in the process destroy Hezbollah, control Lebanon and the mediterranean sea and its hydrocarbon resources.)

As usual, gaining access to natural resources is the end result.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

“There are, though, two reasons why the West might not wish to stand by as the death toll, already over 80,000,”

The two reasons are baseless. I will only tackle the death toll. Out of the 80,000 cited by the media, about 20,000 or more include government troops. I don’t think the West and its journalists care about dead government soldiers. That leaves us with 60,000. But at least 70 % of the 60,000 are deaths by hardcore militants, al Nusra terrorists, foreign mercenaries, etc… And the rest of the deaths are mainly civilian killed by radical islamists responding to the call by their radical clerics to “slit” the throats of Alawite and Shi’ites.

Most civilians died in the hands of radical Islamist aka FSA aka Al Nusra through car explosions, suicide bombings, bombings in government buildings and public squares, bombing of schools, etc…

So attempt to use the argument of 80,000 deaths is a fraud because the majority of deaths are from combat in the battlefield between “enemy combattants” and the Syrian Arab army.

The West can only contribute to the solution by cutting the flow of deadly weopons going to radical islamists in Syria.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive