Global Insight

February 20, 2013 6:50 pm

West lacks will to arm Syrian rebels

Country risks dissolving into a patchwork of armed gangs

After Syria’s fragmented rebel forces coalesced last autumn into the National Coalition, it was assumed that the more than 100 countries that recognised it as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people would do a lot more to help the opposition bring down the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Instead, the US and the EU, chief midwives to a new Syrian opposition meant to be a military as well as political coalition, look as though they are willing the ends but are simply not prepared to will the means.

In particular, they are not willing – so far – to give mainstream rebel units the anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons they need to blunt the Assad regime’s military superiority, out of fear these arms could eventually be turned against western targets.

President Barack Obama overruled the advice of his security and foreign policy advisers last year and decided not to arm the rebels. The UK this week failed to persuade its EU partners to lift the embargo on arming the rebels. France, initially allied with Britain on this initiative, got cold feet. President François Hollande said it was important to be “sure there are no further possibilities of political dialogue”.

In light of the long and tortured history of western intervention in Arab and Muslim countries, not to mention the potential for sectarian carnage in Syria, prudence and realism are hardly out of place.

Mr Obama may also be mindful of what happened in Libya, between the western-assisted overthrow of Muammer Gaddafi and the murder in Benghazi of US ambassador Chris Stevens – and the domestic blame game that followed. Mr Hollande may be reflecting on how western-supplied arms to Libyan rebels ended up in the hands of jihadi forces that France is confronting in Mali.

The question now is whether the cataclysmic destruction of Syria, with a conservative estimate of 70,000 dead and tens of thousands fleeing weekly across its borders, has changed the calculus of what is prudent and realistic.

In the present dynamic stalemate – in which an eroding Assad regime cannot regain control of the country and advancing but still fractured rebel forces cannot dislodge it – Syria is disintegrating. It may soon dissolve into a patchwork of armed gangs (of which the Assads will be the biggest), marauding jihadis and regional warlords.

Any policy to avoid this descent into chaos would seem prudent. But lawless mayhem is already here, bringing with it the vicious menace of ethnosectarian war that could turn Syria into merely the frontline of a rippling regional conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam.

The (understandably) hesitant policy of the west now ensures that the Assad regime it wants out, and the jihadis whose advance it wants to block, are the only ones with a reliable supply of arms, while the more or less mainstream rebels it purports to back keep running out of ammunition.

Russia and Iran provide real support to the Assads, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar channel resources to the jihadis and Muslim Brotherhood, respectively. The military council created by the National Coalition as a condition for international recognition has little means to establish authority in rebel ranks – and therefore much diminished ability to attract either regime defectors or fighters that now flock to the black banners of the jihadis.

Another reason western leaders are using to justify their hesitancy is the recent diplomatic initiative of Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the National Coalition, essentially offering Mr Assad an exit as part of talks on ending the war. But this is clearly a tactic to sow more dissent inside an eroding regime and demonstrate once and for all that the Assad clan will never compromise.

It is partly aimed at breaking the cohesion of the Alawites – the Shia offshoot that underpins the Assad regime – which, like other minorities, fears Syria’s revolution will bring radical Sunni Islamists to power. Alawite tribal leaders say patience with the Assad clan has worn thin as casualties rise within a community beginning to see the war as unwinnable. “We need to find ourselves a new overcoat,” says one tribal leader. “This one can no longer protect us.”

Syria can only be rebuilt on the basis of compromise. The paradox is that this may soon be impossible unless those most willing to compromise are given more means to force one.

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