Throw Gasoline on the Fire: The Rush to Arm Syria’s Fragmented Rebels

With Russia and China blocking serious international action on Syria, numerous states have begun seeking ways to intervene indirectly. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are reportedly already giving weapons to the Syrian rebellion. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland has suggested that this is among the options on the table in the long run for the U.S., and in today’s New York Times, Roger Cohen argues that the time to start sending in weapons is now. Cohen:

In short, Syria is dangerous. But that not a reason for passivity or incoherence. As the Bosnian war showed, the basis for any settlement must be a rough equality of forces. So I say step up the efforts, already quietly ongoing, to get weapons to the Free Syrian Army.

Cohen extends the argument in that vein–that a stronger FSA will be a viable opposition, forcing Assad to negotiate and ushering in a new era of stability. Failing to arm the Syrian rebels ensures that the present bloody stalemate will continue. Shipping weapons, training rebel forces, and creating humanitarian enclaves will bring the conflict to a resolution, or at least to a ceasefire. In return for some modicum of authority, the FSA will be expected to guarantee the rights of minorities, assuaging Alawite and Christian fears of Sunni vengeance.

There’s a big problem with this argument. The Free Syrian Army is not a unified force, and is itself an island within the broader Syrian opposition. Militant groups claiming membership in the Free Syrian Army have sprung up, and they range from local defense organizations to groups of deserters to religious extremists. This jumble makes up the FSA, which itself is not fully under the control of the now-official opposition, the Syrian National Council. Outside the opposition, Syria remains a regional keystone subject to a range of forces, from quasi-criminal pro-regime militias to Hezbollah.

A pipeline burns in Homs. (Image via Injoke)

What would the consequences be of injecting arms into this setting? Conflagration. The best case scenario is a second Libya–the ragtag band of rebels brings down the regime, and infighting over the spoils begins. The more likely scenario is that the rebels don’t bring down the regime but don’t collapse either; the conflict continues, but at a higher intensity. Worn down from extended conflict, Assad attempts to negotiate with the FSA and reaches a deal. Only some FSA factions heed the deal, and the conflict begins anew. Criminal organizations divert some of the weapons and money from the rebels, turning Syria into a top exporter of instability. Arms from Syria float around the region for decades, fueling other conflicts.

Assad and his henchmen, despite seeing many desertions at the low levels of the military, retain a solid grip on power. The Free Syrian Army remains a divided subset of the divided opposition. As long as these two factors persist, arming the FSA will only make the conflict worse, serving nobody’s interests. Statesmen may earnestly wish to act against Assad’s butchery, for ignoring it blackens the soul. These leaders would be wise to remember Richelieu’s words: “The state has no immortality.”

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