We can’t say that helping the Syrian rebels didn’t work, because it has never really been tried.
- By Robin Yassin-KassabRobin Yassin-Kassab is author of The Road from Damascus, a novel. He co-edits pulsemedia.org and blogs at qunfuz.com.
In response to non-violent protests calling for reform, the Baathist regime in Damascus has brought Syria bloodshed, chaos, and created the conditions in which jihadism thrives. The now partially armed revolution is doing its best to roll back the bloodshed and to eliminate the regime that perpetrates it.
Yet Foreign Policy‘s Marc Lynch, one of the more perceptive analysts of the Middle East, argues that after more than 60,000 lives have been lost, "the last year should be a lesson to those who called for arming the rebels." In a previous article, Lynch noted, "Syrian armed groups are now awash with weapons."
Anyone laboring under the delusion that pro-revolution foreign powers have flooded Syria with hi-tech weaponry should scroll through the blog of New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers or peruse the web pages displaying improvised catapult bombs and PlayStation-controlled armored cars. These are hardly the tools of a fighting force that has been armed to the teeth.
While it’s true that some armed groups — particularly the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra — have sometimes found themselves in possession of plenty of weaponry, the resistance remains overwhelmingly dependent on the weapons it can buy, steal, or seize from captured checkpoints and bases.
Simply put, the assumptions of those who called for arming the rebels have not been tested because the rebels have not been armed — except in irrelevant, sporadic and, in Lynch’s words, "poorly coordinated" ways. For instance, an ammunition shortage slowed the original rebel advance in Aleppo to a destructive halt.
Yes, the Saudis and Qataris distributed some light weapons — each according to their own interests, which only compounded the disorganization of rebel forces. The United States has held them back from providing heavy weapons, which could have made a difference against tanks and aircraft. In any case, the Arab Gulf states are also manipulating the Syrian conflict for their own ends: The Saudi tactic seems to be to slowly bleed Iran in Syria in the manner of the Iran-Iraq war rather than to push for a rapid revolutionary victory.
NATO’s Patriot missile deployment in Turkey, which will only be used to stop missiles crossing the Turkish border rather than to establish a no-fly zone in Syria, sums up the broader thrust of Gulf and Western policy: a vain effort to quarantine the Syrian problem rather than to allow the revolution to come quickly to its natural conclusion.
In October and November, rebels did acquire man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), which were almost certainly seized from over-run regime bases. A number of regime planes and helicopters were then shot down, prompting media talk of yet another tipping point. But now the MANPADS have dried up, and Syria’s cities and villages have been returned to the unending grind of aerial bombardment.
A steady, well-coordinated supply of anti-aircraft weaponry would have liberated parts of northern Syria from these bombs, which pulverize both infrastructure and human life. Refugees could have returned from Turkey. The Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella organization for opposition groups, could have made a real effort to coordinate governance and food supplies in these areas, and warlordism would have been weakened. Rebuilding could have started. Schools could have reopened. But there was no supply, and as a result northern Syria is dying.
"It’s too late to avoid the militarization of the conflict or to prevent the sidelining of non-armed groups," Lynch writes. While this statement is entirely true, it fails to take account of the enormous and continuing disparity between the sides. Not only is the regime far better armed and organized than the resistance militias, it is also by far the most destructive force in the country, by far the greater killer of civilians. At this point, it’s not unusual for 1,000 civilians to be killed in a week. Bombs are not dropped on bread lines or petrol queues as a battle tactic, but to murder, terrorize, and demoralize the unarmed population.
The inequality of military power does not restrain, but in fact encourages, the use of force by the Syrian regime. As the United States did in Iraq, or as Israel has done again and again in Gaza, stronger parties rely on overwhelming force when other solutions fail them. The weapons disparity is the only reason Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad continues to believe that he can win. He has lost vast tracts of the country, a large majority of the population despises him, the economy is crumbling — but still he has planes, helicopters, tanks, and missiles, and his opponents do not.
In the light of the regime’s extreme repression, the arming of the revolution was inevitable. Non-violent protest continues to be important in Syria, but it lost its centrality in the first months — before the emergence of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) — because peaceful demonstrations were consistently broken up by bullets and clubs and non-violent activists were tortured to death. The FSA did not create these conditions, but emerged in response to them. When soldiers are ordered to fire on their unarmed countrymen, some will inevitably defect. When people experience the destruction of their homes, the rape of their sisters, the torture of their children, some of them will inevitably take up arms. Once they have done so, they are hunted by the regime; they must either bring it down or die.
Yet Lynch writes, "The United States should lean even harder on its Gulf allies to stop funneling weapons and cash to its local proxies for competitive advantage." This is a recipe for mass slaughter. These people are not going to give up, and Russia and Iran are not going to stop funneling weapons and cash to the regime.
Lynch is right that direct foreign military intervention is inadvisable. It would fulfill the expectations of those in and beyond the Middle East who believe the Syrian revolution is all about Iran and that the revolutionaries are pawns in the hands of dastardly foreign powers. There’s too much bad history, particularly as far as the United States is concerned. Moreover, Syria would be an infinitely more difficult conflict than Libya: Western forces would find themselves fighting several wars at once — against Iran, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, perhaps even against Kurdish insurgents. Their presence might well exacerbate the sectarian element of the conflict.
But direct military intervention has always been highly unlikely. It’s a red herring (the most persistent red herring of the conflict) — and one that misjudges the West’s mood, its economy, and its current capabilities in the Middle East. The only useful intervention that can be hoped for is not a land or air invasion but a coordinated effort between the West, the Arabs, and Turkey to fund and arm the Syrian National Coalition, which is now recognized by over 130 countries as the "sole" or "legitimate" representative of the Syrian people.
With regard to Jabhat al-Nusra, Lynch writes, "The shift into armed insurgency and civil war is what brought al Qaeda into the mix, not America’s failure to deliver guns."
Once again this is true, but surely time plays a role too. In Iraq, it took more than a year of attacks against Shiite civilians before the Shiite militias geared up into ethnic-cleansing mode. In Syria, for the first year of the armed revolution, Jabhat al-Nusra was an irrelevant fringe group. That’s a year of increasing trauma and desperation for the military defectors and suffering civilians on the ground. Trauma and desperation tend to radicalize people’s politics.
But two factors above all have dramatically improved Jabhat al-Nusra’s profile in the last six months, and neither of them is ideological. The first is the shortage of arms among the rebel groups. Jabhat al-Nusra’s existing arsenal — acquired from Iraq and from private donors in the Gulf — wedded to its cadres’ fearless discipline in battle, allowed it to capture a string of military installations in the east, and thus to procure more weaponry, including heavy guns. It has used the new weapons to take on new and bigger regime targets, like the Taftanaz airfield in Idlib province, and in the process has won new weapon-hungry recruits.
The second factor is hunger. In Aleppo, regime bombing of bakeries, poor supply lines, and other militias’ looting and indiscipline sparked a bread crisis. Jabhat al-Nusra stepped into the breach and won plaudits from locals for safeguarding grain supplies and fairly distributing bread. According to the survival standards of today’s Aleppo, it is applying good governance. So far, it looks like al Qaeda’s most successful incarnation — one which has learnt valuable lessons since the Iraq branch with which it maintains ties — alienated Iraqi Sunni communities.
It’s too late for a happy ending in Syria. There are no easy answers to the country’s enormous problems, but there is an obvious first step toward a solution: funding the moderate Islamists and secularists of the Syrian National Coalition, which will then feed the hungry and fund the fighters, empowering them to buy the weapons they need. That step will provide those Syrian communities scared of the revolutionary future, as well as the West, with a real Syrian interlocutor — a body that represents a real path to a better future, rather than a collection of militias.