A Terrible Idea: Arming the Syrian Rebels

Syrian soldiers, who have defected to join the Free Syrian Army, hold up their rifles as they secure a street in Saqba, in Damascus suburbs

There are rumors going around that President Obama “is preparing to send lethal weaponry to the Syrian opposition,” although he has said no such thing publicly.

Nevertheless, the rumors are sparking a new debate on the wisdom of directly arming the Syrian rebels. I say “directly” because Washington has been arming the rebels through proxies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar for a very long time as it is. In fact, just acknowledging this should pull the rug out from under those who think arming the rebels directly is even remotely a good idea.

Simply increasing the amount of weapons the Syrian rebels receive will prolong the conflict and probably make things a lot worse before they get better. Indeed, foreign meddling is a big reason the conflict has gone on so long in the first place.

“A continuous supply of weapons to both sides—whether from Russia, Iran or the Gulf States—only maintains the parties’ perception that fighting is a better option than negotiating,” Dr. Florence Gaub, a researcher at the NATO Defense College, writes at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This explains why, in terms of statistical probability, an external supply of weapons lengthens a civil war.”

“Syria indeed has become an arena for outside meddling, but the meddling has been far more effective at sustaining the fighting than ending it,” said a report last year from the International Crisis Group.

So if rebels get more of the same kinds of weapons from the US that they’ve been getting from the Gulf states, no positive appreciable change will come because the facts on the ground will not change. But what if the Obama administration sends what policy wonks call “decisive” aid, like antitank weapons and surface-to-air missiles? Will that tip the balance in favor of the rebels and against the Assad regime?

Probably not. As Wired‘s Spencer Ackerman reports “few strategists consider that realistic. Assad has a variety of advantages — an adaptive military estimated at over 50,000; complete air superiority; chemical weapons — that he will retain even if Obama opens a new arms pipeline.” The rebels can’t overcome those advantages with newer and better weapons, according to Ackerman.

Beyond making interventionists feel better, boosting arms to the rebels won’t do anything but make the situation worse. And history bears this out. As Prof. Eva Bellin and Prof. Peter Krause in the Middle East Brief from Brandeis University found in their study of the Syria situation, “The distillation of historical experience with civil war and insurgency, along with a sober reckoning of conditions on the ground in Syria, make clear that limited intervention of this sort will not serve the moral impulse that animates it. To the contrary, it is more likely to amplify the harm that it seeks to eliminate by prolonging a hurting stalemate.”

These are the strategic reasons not to directly arm the rebels. But there are other reasons, like, for example, that the rebels can’t be trusted.

It’s no secret that the strongest fighting force in the rebel opposition is Jabhat al-Nusra, an off-shoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Do we want to help bring them to power? Beyond the ties to officially designated terrorist organizations, many of the rebels have committed  war crimes. Is Washington prepared to back these people?

Advocates of intervention like to claim that there are at least some rebels of an acceptable caliber, who haven’t committed crimes, don’t have ties to terrorist groups, and want a secular political transition post-Assad. But realists don’t buy it.

“Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of,” The New York Times reported last week.

For those of us trying to look beyond the basest, most immediate policy satisfaction, what happens after we arm the rebels is important. Who would come to power after Assad? Where will the weapons go if and when the fighting dies down? In Libya, an influx of weapons and fighters had repercussions across the region, destabilizing neighboring states and bolstering jihadists across north Africa. Are the interventionists really so sure similar unintended consequences won’t happen in Syria – which, by the way, is far more complicated than Libya?

The most immediate consequences of directly arming the rebels are all bad. But what’s worse is that there is little chance, once Obama takes this escalatory step, of avoiding a deeper involvement in the conflict. Mission creep will come and the advocates for “limited intervention” will soon become advocates for boots on the ground or an all-out bombing campaign that will take considerable resources in blood and treasure. A new US war would precipitate a descent into sectarian conflict on the order of post-Saddam Iraq and would spark a new jihadist cause in the broader Middle East, and potentially a regional war between states.

Photo credit: Reuters