Arming Rebels, Part II
Wednesday, June 5, 2013 at 03:45PM
Lindsay Cohn

This is an update to my last post about arming rebels, in which I made it clear that I thought that, at the time, it was a pretty bad idea. The fall of Qusayr may have changed my mind.

Nothing that I said before has changed. What has changed is the urgency of US interests in not allowing the rebels to lose the fight. Therefore, it may now make sense to arm them.

Basically, if you want two sides to sit down to peace talks, they both need to believe that peace talks will get them a better deal than fighting will. In military terms, this means there needs to be a "hurting stalemate" - a situation that doesn't seem to promise either side victory, and that is costly to both. We had that until the fall of Qusayr. Now, what we have is a regime with momentum on its side and a rebel force with momentum against it. The problem with that is that it means the regime has little or no incentive to engage in sincere peace talks.

What the US needs now is to make sure that the rebels fight their way back to a stalemate before July. Given the aid the regime is receiving from Hezbollah and the shipments of missiles and MiGs it is set to receive from Russia, it now seems that the only way to do that is to improve the rebels' armaments.

As I said today on Iowa Public Radio, however, we must make such a move with our eyes wide open. It will mean arming people we don't like, possibly even people we have already labeled as terrorists, and certainly people who will do some very nasty things. It will certainly mean the fighting will last longer than it might otherwise, and that means more civilian casualties and worse humanitarian conditions. It will NOT mean that the rebels will like us and listen to us when the fighting is over. If we do it, we must do it because we want to make sure the rebels can hang in militarily long enough to get everyone to peace talks.

Assuming we can get some kind of peace deal, there will need to be a robust peacekeeping force in Syria for a significant period of time, in order to allow the new government to get on its feet and to keep the crazies from taking over. Luckily, there aren't any obvious political obstacles to a UN peacekeeping force as long as there is a ceasefire and power-sharing agreement in place. Neither Russia nor China will have any reason to oppose that. All the surrounding states will have an interest in Syrian stability. Iran is the only player that might object, and it can't object without looking bad.

So here is me changing my policy stance: I think we should probably arm the rebels, in the interests of bringing the fight on the ground back to a stalemate so that we can have effective peace talks. If and when we get a peace agreement, we should push for a robust UN peacekeeping force to be there for years.

Update on Friday, June 7, 2013 at 12:45PM by Registered CommenterLindsay Cohn

Update: Congress and members of the administration appear to be ruling out the types of weapons that would really help the rebels, such as MANPADS. If the US refuses to provide those types of weapons for fear that we will later have to deal with the charge that we armed the bad guys - which is a totally understandable fear - then I think we need to make sure someone else DOES get them those weapons.

In general, one side reaching a decisive victory is more likely to lead to a lasting peace. In this case, however, I doubt that will happen even if Assad wins, because the conflict within Syria is a proxy for so many other conflicts in the region. That being the case, if the rebels cannot win, the US priority must be to bring the parties to the table and get some kind of agreement, which the international community will then have to enforce.

For more, see the excellent piece by Micah Zenko in Foreign Policy.

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