No weapons for the rebels

The potential for arms to be used against Syrian civilians who have suffered most throughout the two years of civil war is not among the primary considerations of the arms-exporting west. One may wonder whether it is of any concern at all.

Moh Hamdi
6 June 2013

As the Syrian civil war extends, voices advocating a foreign military intervention or an indirect intervention by means of weapons transfers to the rebels, are getting louder among politicians and the intelligentsia of the international community. In a recent article for instance, Salam Kawakibi and six co-signatories propound the plea to come to the aid of the rebels in their attempt to topple Assad, concluding that the world's inaction entails more bloodshed in Syria. 

However, while admitting that the situation in Syria is of an impossible complexity, such single-minded support for the rebels is awash with double standards where interested parties spurred on by ideological aspirations condemn the crimes of one group while condoning those of the other. The abundance of contradictory information makes it all the more difficult to develop a clear picture. In such a swamp, the warring parties cherry-pick those bits of information that suit them best. What is lacking in the discourse which would hugely contribute to alleviating the distress, is an equitable assessment of the situation which puts aside ideological convenience.

Weapons from the west

That crimes were committed by Assad's troops is well known and few are those who wholeheartedly stand by the regime's barbarous acts, which include torture and cluster bomb attacks on civilian areas. The same cannot be said of the sanction granted the rebels. Despite numerous human rights reports such as those issued by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International or the UN which accuse the rebels of crimes comparable to those committed by Assad, the determination to succour them is not ebbing. On the contrary: evidence of extra-judicial killings, kidnappings and cases of torture have not stopped western nations from lifting the arms embargo on Syria so as to enable weapons deliveries to the insurgent groups.

The biggest hindrance to the arms transfers up until recently was the western worry that the imported weapons could some day be used to the detriment of the exporting states and their allies (most importantly Israel) by Islamist groups that are already germinating in Syria, in the same way that happened in previous western interventions such as Afghanistan and Iraq. The fear is legitimate, yet it unveils western indifference to the Syrian people. It's not Islamic radicals that represent a danger but human rights abusers – and they exist on all sides involved in the conflict: be they Shi'i, Sunni, Ba'athists or rebels, Israeli or Iranian. The possibility for the arms to be used against Syrian civilians who have suffered most throughout the two years of civil war is not among the primary considerations of the arms-exporting west – and one may wonder whether it is of any concern at all. The fingers that keep being pointed at Russia for sponsoring the regime ought likewise to be pointed to the western states that cater for vicious insurgent groups – unless, of course, one is prone to apply double standards.

The argument is put forward by advocates of the arms deal that there certainly must be a means to monitor the delivered arms. However, there is no such means. The risk of diversion to parties that are not the intended end-users of the weapons is a major issue in international arms transfers. Despite arms deals usually being orchestrated between, through or with the consent of governments, the risk of diversion is a constant hazard. The case of Syria makes matters more complicated, firstly because the deal involves non-state actors and secondly because the country in question is torn apart by a civil war – a circumstance which, by the way, should stymie European arms exports according to Criterion Three of the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers.  To make matters even worse, the opposition is not a homogenous group but is composed of multifaceted political and ideological streams. Islamist groups and foreign combatants are fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which is mainly composed of Syrian army defectors – each of these groups having been accused of war crimes. Yet, despite the many red flags, western nations – first and foremost France and the UK – are eager to cash in on the arms exports to Syria.

Chimerical weapons

Every justification is exploited by the advocates of whichever kind of foreign intervention to give grounds for their goals. Another contentious issue which exemplifies this, is the controversy regarding the usage of chemical weapons. On August 20 of last year, Obama made a clear statement over his policy on Syria, drawing the red line on the usage of chemical weapons which would change his calculus and may yet prompt him to take direct military action in Syria's civil war. Half a year later, the newspapers are full of rumours of chemical massacres. Both sides were quick to condemn each other: according to the rebels Assad was to blame for the massacres whereas the refugees Carla Del Ponte interviewed in Syria accused the insurgents of the crime.

Del Ponte's subsequent comment that the rebels are most likely to be credited with the massacre was immediately criticized by those in favour of a military intervention against Assad and was like-wise quickly retracted by the UN. These proponents are quick to read the UN's retraction vis-a-vis del Ponte's claim as a proof for Assad's guilt over the crime. However, the UN was not in doubt about the usage of chemical weapons by the rebels but whether such a chemical attack occurred at all. Whereas the UN's repudiation unleashed a wave of accusations against Assad, the findings of the Turkish doctors outlining a lack of evidence of any such an attack were ignored. 

The growing inculpations against Assad are pervasive enough to pressure Obama to hold his word and give his long awaited green light for intervention. If, however, the chemical massacre did happen (which may well be the case but which remains to be proven) how likely is it for Assad to have committed those atrocities given the explicit red line issued a few months earlier? Given all the atrocities already committed by Assad's troops, surely this might be possible. But from a strategic point of view it would equal suicide. In light of the threats of western intervention comparable to those put into action in Libya as well as threats by NATO-member Turkey, to say nothing of Israeli attacks that Syria has no power to reciprocate, such a move would be extremely irrational. Yet, despite the lack of evidence, the accusations persist – especially by the supporters of the rebels who see in Obama's promise a timely opportunity to get foreign troops and foreign weapons into Syria, regardless of the validity of the claims.

The forgotten of the war 

In this polarizing discourse between pro- and anti-interventionists, between regime sympathizers inside and outside of Syria and opposition inside and outside of Syria, the only voice that remains unheard is that of the Syrian people. The voice of those who took the streets peacefully in 2011 with the hope of contributing to a better, more peaceful future. Of those millions who are now forced to flee the country from atrocities committed on both sides. Most Syrians want the war to stop instead of pledging allegiance to one or the other side in the conflict. 

Salam Kawakibi and his colleagues may be right when they say that inaction can be lethal. But hasty actions on uncertain claims are not a desirable alternative. A military intervention would do nothing to help the Syrian people. If there really is to be found a solution for the Syrian people the answer would not be more war fuelled by western arms but an immediate armistice preceded by peace talks with all stakeholders on the negotiating table. Assad's announcement to partake in the upcoming Geneva peace talks is a promising step in this direction. Let's hope the SNC backs down from its boycott and joins in on the peace talks.


Stop The War Coalition" is organizing a protest in front of the US embassy in London on June 15th to demonstrate against the lifting of the arms embargo on Syria and the western intervention into the civil war.

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