President Obama’s decision to officially authorize the transfer of weapons to the Syrian rebels is a gamble with US credibility. Moreover, the release of information, via anonymous sources, shows the fragility of the US administration’s position and suggests the existence of a troubling disagreement among top administration officials. That is hardly the tone needed before committing the country to a military conflict that has thus far killed 93,000 people in Syria. The half-hearted commitment to solving the crisis in Syria by providing more tools of murder and destruction can only be saved by a clear and demonstrable success. Anything short of forcing Assad to leave office through political or military means cannot be considered success. This mission is more complicated than the 2003 war in Iraq, for many reasons.
First, the stated goal of the US administration and its close Arab allies (Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia) is to remove Assad from power. That was also the stated goal of the invasion of Iraq. The similarity ends there. In the case of the Iraq war, the US was able to somewhat achieve its goal with an average of about 160,000 troops (and hardware) on the ground. In the case of the war in Syria, the US administration wants to achieve the same goal it achieved in Iraq but with zero US troops on the ground and with tens of thousands of Syrian and foreign fighters, many of whom are affiliated to the same group that attacked the US on 9-11-2001.
Second, in this war, the United States is in fact fighting on the same side as al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Of course, the supporters of intervention, like Senator McCain, would point out that no weapons will reach terrorists. The reality, however, as demonstrated during McCain’s visit to Syrian territories under the control of the rebels, is that it is impossible to ascertain that those receiving US weapons are not terrorists. After all, he was unable to vet the individuals he met and he was reportedly photographed with kidnappers. How can anyone be sure that weapons will not reach terrorists when a Senator could not properly vet a handful of people with whom he met for a few minutes? The forces fighting the Syrian regime are not all freedom fighters: many of them, motivated by blinding sectarian hatred, have committed (and plan to commit) the most gruesome crimes. That information is available to the public as well as to world leaders. Meeting with the UK Prime Minister in London, President Putin asked his host, "is it the people who not only kill their enemies, but open up their bodies, eat their internal organs, in front of the public and cameras, is it them who you want to supply with weapons?"
Third, and after months of refusing to supply lethal weapons to the rebels, Administration officials are justifying the about-face by suggesting that, now, they have irrefutable evidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons. Given that the echoes of a similar claim (possession of WMD’s) by the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq are still reverberating, it was no surprise that another UNSC veto-wielding power mocked it. Russian officials retorted that there is just as much evidence suggesting that the rebels have used chemical weapons and accused, “Western friends of politicizing the issue.”
The cherry-picking of evidence amounts to playing Russian roulette (no pun intended) with Syrian lives.
The reality that is not tainted with self-interested politics, blinding sectarianism, and wilful prejudice is this: supplying the opposition with more weapons is as wrong as militarizing the originally peaceful uprising in Syria. The principled choice, now, as it was then, is to support the non-violent movement among the Syrian opposition groups.
The idea then that a ragtag militia would be able to protect civilians and property against one of the most formidable armies in the region, especially by those who claimed even then that the regime was supremely brutal, was ridiculous. But equally ridiculous is the notion that more weapons will help end the suffering. Indeed, sending more weapons to the opposition will only encourage the supporters of the Syrian government, like Russia, to provide more weapons. The difference will be that supplying weapons to the Syrian government is not illegal, but supplying weapons to the opposition is, because the Syrian government, as far as the laws of UN Charter and institutions are concerned, is the legitimate government of Syria. And more violation of the UN Charter and international law on the part of the US must chip away at its credibility.
Moreover, with US overt involvement in the armed conflict in Syria, the narrative that justified Iran’s and Hezbollah’s direct involvement is retroactively validated. After all, that is exactly what the leader of Hezbollah said: the war in Syria is an American, Israeli, Takfiri war against the axis of resistance. With the US joining Qatar and Saudi Arabia (the main sponsors of violent Salafism) in supplying opposition groups with weapons to fight governments, a dangerous precedent is established. What, then, would stop Iran, Russia, China or any other country from supplying weapons to opposition groups in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, or even Turkey where legitimate protest movements have risen up and were met with brutal repression by government forces?
The opinions are the author’s and not those of any organisation with which he is affiliated.
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