The Middle East Channel

What’s non-lethal about aid to the Syrian opposition?

What’s non-lethal about aid to the Syrian opposition?

As pressure increases on western governments to bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria, "non-lethal" assistance has become the promise of the hour. The term is ubiquitous, cropping up in White House press briefings and the European Union’s arms embargo on Syria.

Yet despite the pervasive nature of the term, it does not yet have a widely accepted legal definition. Broadly speaking, it is used to describe equipment and intelligence that cannot be directly used to kill. This can encompass anything from helmets and body armor to more facilitative assistance such as encrypted radios and satellite imagery. In practice, the lines between non-lethal equipment and its lethal counterparts are more blurred. In fact, both are required for a soldier to maximize the use of his weapon. As Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, points out, "a guy with a helmet and a radio is more likely to use his gun effectively because his protection increases his survivability and his radio [improves] his targeting through better communication."

Nevertheless, the distinction between lethal and non-lethal weapons is a crucial one for the governments involved in their supply. According to Wezeman, any move toward arming the rebels would be "very politically sensitive indeed." As Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague has emphasized, the British position is "not about taking sides." How the move toward assisting the rebels will be seen within the Assad regime’s inner chambers is perhaps another story.

To date, the bulk of the formalized non-lethal assistance deliveries to Syria’s loosely organised rebel fighting brigades are coming from the United States, Britain, and France. The U.S. State Department has set aside $25 million to supply Syria’s opposition with non-lethal assistance, distributing 900 pieces of equipment through its Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO). The British government has currently set aside £1.9 million for its own deliveries, distributing these through a slowly expanding network of vetted contacts. The French approach has been slightly different. Focusing instead on targeted areas, Francois Hollande’s administration has identified five specific "rebel held" areas within which to concentrate its assistance. These are all within Deir Ezzor, Aleppo, and Idlib, governorates that have faced waves of intense bombardment from regime forces in recent months.

Tracing the passage of western non-lethal assistance is a tricky endeavor. As with the rebel’s growing arsenal of weapons, it is often difficult to establish whether a single item was sourced from a British shipment, smuggled across the border, or looted internally from regime stocks. However, several known types of assistance have found their way to Syria through British, U.S., and French efforts: body armor, communications equipment, intelligence support, and satellite imagery.

Emphasizing that arming the Syrian rebels would involve breaching the EU’s arms embargo on the country, the British government has focused instead on providing body armor and helmets as part of its assistance package. Hague told the press that this is viewed as "lifesaving protective equipment for civilians to help those carrying out vital work in the crossfire." Similar commitments have also come from the United States and France. Body armor is, of course, a vital part of any soldier’s tool kit. For many, this will be the difference between life and death.

One of the most widely documented forms of non-lethal assistance has been communications equipment. This includes encrypted radios, satellite phones, and SIM cards. The United States, Britain, and France have publicly committed to providing such assistance. Although justified on humanitarian grounds — British assistance can be used to warn civilians of impending regime assaults according to Hague — these can also be used by rebel brigades to enhance their fighting capabilities. As Wezeman points out: "The rebels have [increasingly] got the kind of firepower they require but then need the means to organize their fighting. This is where [communications] equipment is essential in a military campaign on this level." In the case of Libya, it has been argued that similar efforts to organize rebels with command-and-control equipment played a significant role in enhancing their coordination and fighting capabilities.

Although communications equipment remains sparsely distributed, those who receive it gain an important tool with which to counter extensive regime surveillance and signal-jamming efforts. It also allows brigades to communicate securely across different areas, opening channels that can be used to give prior warning of government attacks.

Another significant avenue for non-lethal support is through intelligence. Syrian opposition officials report that British intelligence officers are stationed in two Cyprus military bases. Here they collect information that is then passed on to rebel commanders. This allows opposition fighters to preempt the regime’s movements. It also provides the means to plan surprise attacks, a tactical necessity for fighters so outgunned by the state’s extensive arsenal.

According to the Syrian officials, intelligence support has facilitated a number of successful ambushes in Idlib and Saraqib, including an attack on 40 army tanks. The assault on two large columns of government troops as they moved toward Aleppo was well documented when it happened in early August, although the source of the intelligence was not revealed at the time.

The men of the rebel Farouk Brigade, tasked with defending the town of Talbiseh, appear lightly armed in the face of the regime’s firepower as they face daily incursions from government forces. But their M16s and worn anti-aircraft guns are aided by more high-tech paraphernalia: high-resolution satellite imagery. Access to recent images of the areas in which they are operating provides a small but significant advantage to the groups who possess them. Not only can they get a better picture of areas they may not be able to easily reach in person, but they also receive prior warning of regime troop build-ups. 

The U.S. Department of Defense is believed to be one source of such images. This would be consistent with previous non-lethal assistance to fighting groups in Libya. In addition, the United States is currently the only country with the technological capacity to conduct regular satellite photography missions over Syria.

The video below illustrates how such non-lethal assistance could be deployed in pursuit of fatal ends. Using a Google satellite map of an area in Hama that appears to have been supplemented with newer maps — the image on the screen differs from the current version on the Google Maps website — the rebels are planning an assault on regime-held territory. As apparently evidenced by the flames that engulf their target at the end of the video, this level of accuracy can engender deadly success. Western non-lethal assistance is not solely confined to the battlefield. Governments are also providing software in an attempt to help the rebels circumvent the regime’s extensive internet surveillance efforts. This offers an important level of security for the beneficiaries, allowing them to leave their communication channels open. To this end, the U.S. State Department is distributing software as part of its assistance package to the opposition. According to Professor Philip Howard, a fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy, the State Department has been investing in "circumvention tools" for several years now. A range of tools for making internet users anonymous have also been developed by the New America Foundation and the University of Toronto. As well as specific software packages, the United States is already likely to be providing direct satellite link-ups and internet radios. As Professor Howard explains, these are "important tools that make for direct connections to the internet."

Western non-lethal assistance will be of varying significance for different fighting groups in Syria. Although the United States, Great Britain, and France are encouraging greater coordination between countries providing external assistance, the passage of equipment remains slow. It is also sparsely distributed, and British officials admit privately that assistance packages only reach small groups within any given rebel brigade. Furthermore, the equipment’s usefulness will vary according to the size and strength of each brigade’s arsenal. Tactics are only as strong as the tools that implement them. If a Free Syrian Army foot soldier uses a gun that lacks the key constituent parts to function properly — a common problem with weapons that have been looted internally — then command-and-control equipment simply cannot be used to the same effect.

Current levels of assistance are unlikely to hasten the final stage of Syria’s bloody crisis. Nor are they expected to increase significantly in the near future as the United States, Great Britain, and France remain committed to solving the conflict through diplomatic means. But as this high diplomacy continues apace, the devastating reality of Syria’s war gouges deeper into the collective memory of a nation. Many will be questioning why such grand promises of assistance have done little to avert the unfolding tragedy.

Louisa Loveluck is a freelance journalist specializing in Middle Eastern affairs and a researcher at the International State Crime Initiative. She blogs at leloveluck.wordpress.com.