Why it is utterly stupid to arm the Syrian rebels: Fighting Assad to the last Syrian

14 Jun

Former US State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley was on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning justifying Obama’s decision to step up military assistance to the Syrian rebels. Chillingly, he said ‘We know how to fight proxy wars’. This is very true. The United States and the Soviet Union spent the Cold War fighting each other by not fighting each other directly. They invested huge energies in proxy wars across the globe, costing tens of millions of lives and impacting upon the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Vietnam, Mozambique, Laos, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ethiopia … the list could go on and on. And in the post-Cold War era, this proxy war-fighting has been common (think Lebanon). Of course, proxy wars are not just the preserve of superpowers. Regional powers have been engaged in proxy wars for decades, whether it is Pakistan’s actions in Afghanistan or Qatari aid to Syria.

The argument from the United States is that Assad has crossed a ‘red line’ by using chemical weapons against his own people and therefore the rebels need further support to oust him. It is one of the stupidest arguments on the history of the planet. It is also deeply cowardly. Let’s deal with the stupidity first:

1. What’s the endgame? What happens on day 1 of post-Assad Syria? Has anyone done any planning on this? The history of democratic transitions and democratic consolidations in the Middle East is appalling. There isn’t a single democracy (bar, arguably, Lebanon) in the region (don’t start me on whether Israel is a democracy. It’s not). Assad’s legacy will be of a deeply divided society, and without detailed planning of the next stage then sending in more arms is grossly irresponsible. On US skills at post-war planning just look to Afghanistan and Iraq.
2. Who controls the weapons? There is plenty of evidence that the Syrian opposition is hugely divided and contains some groups with shocking human rights records. It also contains Islamist extremists who have positions antithetical to the United States and its allies and proxies (notably Israel). So can the CIA and Department of Defense guarantee that these weapons will be used in accordance with international law? And that these weapons won’t fall into ‘the wrong hands’? Of course not.
3. Sending in more arms undermines any attempt to construct and maintain a legitimate rationale for opposition against Assad. The evidence that Assad is a tyrant and has lost his legitimacy is plain to see. But the argument that the opposition has legitimacy is undermined if the strategy is simply to arm them. The Syrian National Coalition is already a farce. Beyond wanting to get rid of Assad there seems to be no unifying agenda whatsoever. Sending in arms will simply propagate resource in-fighting among the rebels.
4. This undermines – once and for all – any possible negotiated outcome. The Geneva talks have effectively been torpedoed by the US. Listening to what the US and British governments have been saying over the past few weeks, it is clear that they had little interest in the talks anyway. By sending in more arms this simply says to the rebels: ‘Don’t worry about the talks, beat them on the battlefield’. Assad’s spokesperson has already said that they are prepared to go to the talks table. So further weapons imports will not help if the aim was to get Assad to talks.
5. What will the US give the Syrians that the Saudis cannot? Who has more disposable cash: the Saudis or the US? Is there anything on the conventional weapons menu that the Saudis don’t have access to?
6. What is the underlying message that this sends about the legitimacy of the West and its way of politics? Does this have anything positive to say about democracy, about individual freedoms, about human rights etc.?
7. The Russians will simply send in more weapons.

One counterargument against my position on the stupidity of further arming the rebels is that more arms will induce a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’. If each side realises that it cannot win militarily, they will be forced to explore negotiated alternatives. Even Zartman, the author behind the MHS idea, was sceptical of its predictive ability. And, as we have seen, the basis for negotiations has already been undermined. John Paul Lederach effectively demolished MHS with his arguments on the futility of forcing ‘ripe moments’. Lederach, with a nice horticultural metaphor, argued that we need to concentrate on cultivating the soil (the process) rather than on the end product (the ripened fruit).

And now for the cowardly part. The people who will enable this – parliamentarians and ministers in so-called democracies and peace-loving states – will be entirely safe. The biggest threat to them is that they are voted out of office and retire on a pension and consultancy fees. They are enabling other people to fight a war. It is profoundly cowardly. They will fight Assad to the last Syrian.

The losers in all of this will be the Syrian people. More weapons will not help them. It will just mean a more violent stalemate, with young Syrian men conducting outrages against each other and the general population.

Let’s be clear. None of the above is meant to give comfort to Assad. He is a tyrant. The US and Britain are not the principal bad guys here, but they are acting with gross irresponsibility. The people who enable more weapons to enter an already unstable arena are likely to die in their sleep. Many Syrians will not be so lucky.

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