Arming Rebels
Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at 01:23PM
Lindsay Cohn

I can't avoid this any longer. American people, you and I need to have a little chat about arming rebels.

What do we know about arming rebels?

1. It is likely to help them perform better in armed struggle, but not guaranteed, and winning might still take a long time (see: Afghanistan, Libya).

2. It does NOT make them like you better (see: Afghanistan, Libya, all of Central and South America).

3. It does NOT give you more influence in the post-conflict order - at least not significantly - unless you are also prepared to give a lot of money and support for reconstruction.

4. It may very well give other actors a reason - not just a pretext, but a reason - to get more involved, and that may result in things escalating or spilling over, and then you will have to deal with that.

What do we know about democratization?

1. It is difficult, messy, often violent, and takes a really long time.

2. It works much better if people do it themselves.

3. Outside help can be good - sometimes even crucial - but it is difficult and expensive to provide the kind of help that actually ... helps.

What do we know about Syria?

1. A minority (Alawite Shi'ite) government against a largely Sunni population, with some Kurds and a tiny Christian minority thrown in.

2. A client government of Iran and Russia; ally of Hezbollah. In short: it has friends in the region. Furthermore, the Shi'ite government of Iraq has a direct interest in not having Sunni radicals take over Syria, since that would be both a diplomatic problem and a very real threat to stability in Iraq's Sunni regions.

3. Turkey certainly does not want a Kurdish breakaway region, so favors some kind of stability. Also suffering significantly from refugee issues, exemplified by the recent shooting incident at the border as Turkish border guards fired on Syrian refugees trying to get into Turkey.

4. Al Assad and his associates believe that their only hope of survival is winning this fight. They will not give up unless they get some kind of guarantee of immunity. That might be difficult to do if the rebels make his trial a non-negotiable, but it is the only way that he will give up the fight.

5. The rebels are not and never have been a coherent group. Some of them are simple Syrians fighting against a brutal dictator to get their country back. Some of them are Sunni extremists fighting to take down a Shi'ite regime. So long as they both have the same goal, they will work together, regardless of whether they agree on other things. There have already been reports of atrocities on both sides, and there are likely to be more. There are most certainly some good guys in this fight, but identifying them is not easy, and they are working hand in glove with bad guys.

So, should we arm the rebels? Well, under certain circumstances, yes, but only if we understand what it would and would not accomplish for us. It may help them win the war, but then we will almost certainly have a massacre of Alawites on our hands. It may help them win the war, but it will not make them do what we tell them to do once the war is over. They will have immediate concerns far more pressing than what the US wants. There will be a power struggle between the extremists and the non-extremists. There will be political and possibly military interference from surrounding states. There will be the usual difficulties of setting up a government that is both capable and legitimate. Arming them now will not suffice to give the US a significant voice in that turmoil. It may help them win the war, but it will probably provoke escalation. The Assad regime has allies, many of whom are willing to fight with it against the rebels. Others are already involved, you say? Yes, but by proxy. The main reason the US has avoided direct involvement in this fight is precisely because direct involvement by any outside state is likely to draw other states in. There is still a distinction between a civil war in Syria - as awful as that is - and a wider regional war including Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, with Russia and Iran probably involved.

If we arm the rebels, we must do it with the expectation that those weapons will certainly get into the hands of people we would not want to arm. We must do it with the expectation that atrocities will be committed, at least some of them by the people we are helping. We must do it with the expectation that it will not lead to a significant American voice in the reconstruction phase. We must do it, if we do it, with the understanding that its only purpose is to try to help the rebels win against the Assad regime, and that what happens after is a whole new problem.

My two cents: I don't think we should arm the rebels. I think we should try to get Russia to offer Assad asylum. The offer should be public, so that Assad's associates are infected with doubt about whether he will abandon them or not. If he could be made to leave - or even if enough of his adherents believe he might leave, the rebels might be willing to negotiate, and so might the remnant of his government. Once a peace agreement is in place, there will need to be some third-party enforcement, ideally through the United Nations. Russia and China would be far more likely to agree to a traditional peacekeeping mission than they are to intervention. Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq, at a minimum, must play significant roles in the reconstruction planning.

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