Following a meeting with the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague noted that both “agreed today that [their] priority remains to see a diplomatic process in Geneva that succeeds in reaching a negotiated end to the conflict” and that they “have to be prepared to do more to save lives, to pressure the Assad regime to negotiate seriously, and to prevent the growth of extremism and terrorism."
The implications of "to do more" became clear two days later when the White House announced that the US would start providing military aid to some of the rebel groups, but it is far less clear whether arming rebel groups in Syria will contribute to achieving the stated aims of US and UK policy.
A diplomatic process in Geneva
There is no question that a negotiated settlement to end the current violence in Syria and to begin a transition process would be the best outcome. Yet even before the US decision to arm rebel groups in Syria, serious doubts had been cast over a peace conference actually happening, caused primarily by the deeply fractured opposition movement and its reluctance - to put it mildly - to engage in negotiations with the Assad regime. Arming the rebels will do little to change this equation. To the contrary, if weapons flow quickly to some of the rebel groups and enable them to turn the tide on (parts of) the battlefield - or at least put a stop to the current advances of the regime and its allies, the rebels’ incentive to negotiate decreases.
At the same time, the selected arming of some (i.e. 'moderate') elements among the opposition movement and not others (i.e. 'extremists'), as logical as it may seem from a Western perspective, is unlikely to end divisions within the opposition. Rather, it may increase them, including rebel-on-rebel violence as different factions juggle for positions of power and influence, and covet each other’s military assets.
Even if, as official US/UK logic implies, arming rebels increases the pressure on Assad to embrace a diplomatic process and a peace conference actually happens in Geneva (note, however, that so far the rebels have been at least as big an obstacle), it is very unclear under which terms (e.g. at least a temporary ceasefire) it will actually produce a sustainable settlement that will trigger a political transition. In this scenario, arming rebel groups may actually have a more positive impact: if both sides are strong enough to avoid defeat and thus prevent the other side from winning an outright military victory, and if the ensuing stalemate is hurting both sides enough, a negotiated settlement may seem worth their while.
This, of course, presumes a high degree of rationality and an international community putting pressure on the conflict parties to negotiate in earnest. It also requires both sides to want to keep Syria together—a military stalemate could easily also translate into the sides consolidating their current positions and a new territorial status quo dividing the country into government and rebel-controlled areas. The latter could then easily see further fracturing into smaller militia-controlled areas and/or increased infighting among the opposition movement, in an analogy of current events in Libya. Arming 'moderates' would then at least assure that they can hold their own against 'extremists'.
Clearly a priority from a humanitarian and strategic perspective, it is not exactly clear how arming some of the rebels is going to save lives, at least not in the short term. The decision to do so increases the incentives of the regime and its allies (especially Iran and Hezbollah) to try and finish off the rebel movement before the western supply of weapons can make a difference on the battlefield. As noted above, it also decreases the incentives for the rebels to seek a negotiated solution, at least until the tide is turning away from the regime more clearly. Fighting on the ground will thus inevitably intensify, killing more people as a result and increasing the number of refugees and IDPs, at least some of whom will also die with humanitarian efforts already over-stretched to cope with the current numbers.
In the medium to long term, the extent to which lives can be saved depends on whether a sustainable settlement can be reached. Ideally, this would be a negotiated deal among all the parties with strong international guarantees to monitor and, if necessary, enforce it.
Preventing the growth of extremism and terrorism
As I argued in an earlier analysis of the strategic importance of Syria to outside interests, the fear of the country becoming (even more than it already is) a haven and a training and planning ground for al-Qaeda and other similar terrorist groups with local, regional and global ambitions is a significant worry for policymakers in neighbouring countries and beyond. In a situation in which an opposition movement is beset by ideological rivalries and personal feuds, arming 'moderates' among the rebels may have some benefit in achieving this goal, if whatever military aid is given really remains with them and strengthens their position not only vis-à-vis the Assad regime but also in relation to 'extremists', as it would presumably give them a stronger hand in determining the political direction of the opposition now and in a future (post-Assad) Syria.
The downside, of course, is that it is hard to control where weapons end up once they have been handed over. Nor will it be straightforward to determine which groups really are 'moderate'; whether they will remain so in the future or defect to - or be taken over by - more 'extremist' forces, and whether they will be able to hold on to their new-gained military assets if rebel-on-rebel violence increases. If any of these scenarios become reality, arming rebels will more likely increase, rather than prevent, the growth and capabilities of extremism and terrorism in Syria and the region more widely.
A question of timing?
The US decision to arm the rebels was, at least in part, based on the assessment that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons. While one might question the logic behind this—after all, some 90,000 people have died already, the estimated death toll from chemical weapons is between 100 and 150, and there is suspicion that some rebels have also used them—the more important driver is that the west and its regional allies simply have run out of options to contain, let alone deescalate, the civil war in Syria. The reluctance (quite rightly, in my view) to provide military equipment earlier has in part contributed to the uncertainty about the impact of doing it now, and limits the kinds of weapons the US and allies might want to supply (e.g. no anti-aircraft weapons). This will in turn limit the actual impact on the battlefield in terms of rebel capabilities, but it will not affect the calculations that pro- and anti-Assad forces and their external supporters make. All the indications thus are that nothing will change quickly or for the better in Syria anytime soon.
Originally posted on Monday 17 June 2013 on Stefan's blog.
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