As H.L. Mencken once said “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” The recent decade-long examples of relying on military solutions - as opposed to the more arduous and complicated task of finding political solutions - to complex problems in Iraq and Afghanistan should give one pause before prescribing a military course of action for as intricate a situation as that of Syria.
Western sympathizers with the Syrian uprising against the autocratic regime of Bashir Assad must ruefully recognize that a fragmented and ad hoc opposition is confronting a stubborn and viciously resistant government with its own base of support in the population. Thus, undervaluing diplomacy and political pressure in favour of further militarizing an already violent situation may very well result in a prolonged period of instability, violence and suffering for the Syrian people in whose name the armed support was originally given. In the end, arming rebel forces may not only be a prelude to direct intervention but is certainly a form of military intervention itself and should be carefully considered before undertaking it.
Mariano Aguirre aptly voices his concern regarding the efficacy of military interventions and the high risk of an attendant increase of violence and suffering for the Syrian people. But in addition, there is the question of ultimate consequences, unintended or otherwise, to Syria’s society and to the broader interests of the international community. A few decades ago, Ronald Reagan’s Cold War doctrine of arming anti-communist rebels, unconscionably prolonged the agony of countries like Nicaragua, Angola and Afghanistan. Arming the mujahideen in Afghanistan during the decade of the 1980s undoubtedly paved the way for the chaos and violence of the 1990s and the emergence of Taliban barbarism, which in turn prefaced the Global war on Terror of the first decade of the twenty first century.
The experience of what eventually happens to arms when they are distributed to rebels is also instructive. In the case of the Afghan rebels it was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the hard-line jihadist, notorious for tossing acid in the faces of unveiled women at the university and who commanded the fiercest faction among the seven Afghans rebel groups, who received the lion’s share of US, Chinese and Saudi military aid channelled through Pakistan’s ISI. Hekmatyar turned his attention after 1989 to opposing western and US interests and then formed one of the three main insurgent factions confronting NATO and the US in the post 2001 Afghanistan intervention.
As part of the Reagan doctrine of rollback in the 1980s the US and China armed the tripartite Cambodian rebel coalition fighting the Soviet-backed Hun Sen government; however the bulk of the arms ended up in the hands of the genocidal Khmer Rouge - because they were the most powerful and best organized force and they controlled key refugee camps.
The current state of the fractured opposition in Syria raises the question of how an increase in arms now may gravely penalize the Syrian society. An intensifying war between government and rebel forces risks deepening the ethnic and class divisions in Syria and increasing the possibility of a bloody period of reprisals and local power struggles even after some measure of stability is restored.
Moreover, there is increasing evidence that jihadists have become involved in the struggle - either employed by the government to discredit the opposition or collaborating unbidden in the opposition’s battle with the Assad regime. As is likely in the case of the Syrian jihadist group Al-Nusra, chiefly responsible for the spate of bombings that have rocked Syria since early spring, there is an elective affinity with Al Qaeda with perhaps a link to fighters returning from Iraq. The prospect of western arms ultimately falling into the hands of such an undesirable group, as happened in both Cambodia and Afghanistan in the 1980s, should raise grave doubts in anyone calling for western military support to the Syrian opposition.
Syria is not Afghanistan, Iraq or Cambodia and there is always the long-term hope that the opposition will coalesce into a unified group under an orderly command which would lead to at least a measure of stability in Syria and limit the bloodshed including civilian casualties (the vast majority of the estimated 12,000 killed so far). Notably, the leader of the Syrian National Council has said there would be no peaceful solution to the violence in Syria without "a threat of force against those who don't implement the plan."
However, when the very real risks and uncertainties in proliferating weapons to an as yet unformed Syrian opposition - and with no end user certificates - are lined up against the flimsy optimism of a military solution, one should at least proceed with caution. Like the proverbial pillow that is slit open in the wind, once the arms are diffused throughout Syrian society, it will be difficult to put the feathers - or the arms - back.