The illogic of arming Syria
Syria. An issue the world doesn’t want to deal with but which does not go away. The UN estimated in February that 70,000 have died from the fighting, with millions more displaced. Yet sadly the likelihood of preventing this from continuing seems bleak. Worse still, the mounting evidence of the use of chemical weaponry by both sides has added a new dimension to the conflict, one which Obama previously stated was a ‘red line’ that could not be crossed. He didn’t make it clear what crossing this would mean, but so far the accusations haven’t triggered greater US involvement. Their apathy towards wading further into the Middle East is clear for all to see. Their demand for further intelligence also suggests that the ghost of the Iraq War lingers like a spectre in US foreign policy.
This reluctance means it has been Europe which has taken the lead, but whiles their attempts to halt the fighting are admirable, their methods are baffling. This is especially in relation to the decision to lift armament restrictions, which effectively endorses the providing of weapons to Syrian rebels. A highly contentious move, it is one borne out of Russia’s position. Attaining international consensus on Syria has been strongly hampered by the Kremlin, who unlike other powers, have refused to condemn Assad. This refusal has been such that they have increasingly been nicknamed ‘Mr. No’ by US diplomats. Recently though this support has shifted from diplomatic support to military, with it now providing the regime with weapons. Given this, one might see why Europe may feel their actions are right, for arming rebel’s means greater balance in military capability, making stalemate and so negotiations and an eventual ceasefire more probable.
That’s a nice theory, but it just doesn’t work for Europe. Russia’s decision to arm Assad from their perspectives has some logic to it when one considers the weapons they are providing. They are of a sophisticated type aimed less at crushing the rebels and more at preventing international military action. It is a clever move by Putin. The West already doesn’t want to become involved in Syria militarily. Arming Assad with anti-aircraft missiles only furthers this, for it means there is a greater chance of Western aircraft being attacked, which effectively rules out a Libya style campaign. Giving Assad these weapons then ensures Russia gets its ultimate wish, keeping the West out of Syria. Given this objective, providing arms, though deemed detestable by others, does make a sort of twisted sense.
Arming the rebels though achieves none of Europe’s wishes. More weapons means more war. That means more deaths and more refugees and so only kicks the problem further down a path already littered with corpses. Not only does it solve nothing in the short term, its future consequences could be dire. The label of rebels is useful for the media, but the reality is much less simplistic, for those opposing Assad are a diverse lot. Some fight for real democracy and support the liberal ideals the West loves oh so much. If they could arm just them, then great. But there are also made up of those with links to Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda. Some meanwhile have links to neither, but are just as bloodthirsty as Assad’s troops. Arming the rebels broadly therefore means arms will fall to one or more of these groups, who could later bite the hand that feeds them. After all, it was US arms given to the Mujahideen in the 1980s that were later used against them by the Taliban. History could easily repeat itself.
So if arming the rebels is a no-go, what should they do? It’s hard to say, they are running out of options fast. It is easy to see therefore why some may feel that while providing further weapons isn’t great, it is better than nothing. But is it? Providing them arms creates a scenario reminiscent of the Cold War’s quasi conflicts, which had a tendency to back fire on the West. Long term stability in Syria and the Middle East in general will therefore not be achieved by this decision. Instead, the hands of European leaders will be drenched with the blood of innocence. Negotiations have so far failed, but European leaders would be wise to focus on these and to use their experience in this area to bring opposition voices prepared to compromise to the table. The prospect of this is of course daunting, hence why many would rather not get involved at all. But death and destruction means it is this route that must be trod still further. Despite its difficulty, it offers more hope than continuing to support this bloody war.