The Middle East Channel

Managing militarization in Syria

The most prominent and most troubling of the trends that have shaped the Syrian uprising over the past year is the militarization of the uprising and its transformation from a largely peaceful protest movement to a low-level insurgency dominated not by citizen activists but by a dangerous and uncoordinated array of armed opposition fighters. Dealing ...


The most prominent and most troubling of the trends that have shaped the Syrian uprising over the past year is the militarization of the uprising and its transformation from a largely peaceful protest movement to a low-level insurgency dominated not by citizen activists but by a dangerous and uncoordinated array of armed opposition fighters. Dealing with this trend is the most urgent task facing the United States, the Arab League, the European Union, Turkey and the rest of the "Friends of Syria" group scheduled to meet in Tunis on Friday. If the militarization of the Syrian uprising is not managed, the hope for meaningful change in Syria may be lost.

The emergence of an armed opposition is hardly surprising, and is probably too late to prevent. It is an understandable response to the violence and brutality the regime of Bashar al-Assad has unleashed against peaceful protests. U.S. policy has thus far been sharply critical of militarization, encouraging Syrians to use peaceful means to achieve their political aims. Militarization, they point out, plays to the Assad regime’s advantage. It justifies the regime’s narrative that it is defending Syria from armed gangs, and provokes regime escalation, on vivid display in its recent onslaught against Homs, Zabadani, and other centers of protest and resistance. The growth of an armed opposition, they point out, also weakened the hand of regime critics in the United Nations Security Council, where Russia criticized the text of resolutions on Syria as unbalanced in their focus on violence committed by the Syrian government.

As militarization has expanded and deepened, however, these concerns have become increasingly counterproductive. External warnings have had no effect on the pace of militarization, which has accelerated steadily over the past six months. Even as peaceful demonstrations have continued, Syrians are determined to defend themselves and fight back against a ruthless regime. Instead, current approaches leave the United States and other supporters of political transition without the tools that might mitigate the worst effects of militarization, and potentially, channel it to support rather than undermine diplomatic efforts aimed not only at the end of the Assad regime, but to the emergence of a peaceful, stable, post-Assad Syria.

The troubling consequences of unmanaged militarization are already beginning to emerge. In the political vacuum left by the disarray of the exile opposition, many Syrians now view the armed opposition as more legitimate than the civilian opposition led by the Syrian National Council (SNC). Nominally grouped under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and loosely commanded by officers who defected from the Syrian military, the armed opposition poses a significant political challenge to the SNC’s efforts to consolidate its standing as a credible and legitimate alternative to the Assad regime. While the FSA does not openly position itself as an alternative to the SNC, its visibility and the prestige it has acquired by providing Syrians with a measure of protection give its leadership grassroots support that the SNC has struggled to achieve. Its success casts a long shadow over the civilian opposition, and raises important questions about where the balance of political influence lies, with the civilian leadership of the SNC or the armed leadership of the FSA.

Despite its growing popularity, however, it would be a mistake to view the FSA as having control over the militarization of the Syrian uprising. Not only is the FSA a diffuse and highly decentralized force, including many small bands of fighters who barter their allegiance to FSA commanders in exchange for weapons, supplies, and cash, but the armed opposition extends well beyond the FSA to neighborhood and tribal militias that operate largely outside its control. Nor does the FSA have the capacity to regulate the flow of weapons into Syria. Small arms are now entering Syria from every neighboring country. They are moving through networks that are tribal, sectarian, and regionally based, reinforcing the segmentation of Syrian society. Influential Syrian tribes, for example, especially Sunni tribes, have longstanding kinship ties that extend into Iraq and south to the Gulf. These transnational tribal networks have already been mobilized to support the flow of arms into Syria.

The demand for weapons also provides opportunities for the regionalization of the conflict, as governments and non-state actors exploit Syria’s uprising to cement their own influence by equipping armed groups as local proxies. These efforts are undertaken with no accountability and little regard for the consequences. Unregulated militarization has fueled revenge killings, kidnappings, including by "uniformed" members of the FSA, and a wave of criminality that has amplified the erosion of public order caused by the regime’s response to the uprising. Should the Assad regime fall, these trends virtually ensure that Syria will be left, like Libya, with dozens if not hundreds of local militias able to disrupt the transition to a stable post-Assad democracy.

These trends are already well entrenched, and will prove difficult to control. With the emergence of the Friends Group, however, there is now a chance for the United States and its partners to shift course and begin to build frameworks for managing the militarization of the Syrian uprising. Rather than sidestep the tough choices that such an approach requires, and allow the unregulated flow of weapons from a wide array of self-interested parties, the Friends Group, with U.S. support, needs to develop strategies that recognize militarization as a reality to be managed, rather than imagining it as an outcome that can be avoided.

To check the uncontrolled militarization of the Syrian uprising, the Friends Group should move quickly to establish a single, centralized body overseeing the training and equipping of the armed opposition. Inevitably, this will involve a significant role for Turkey, which currently hosts the FSA in areas along the Syrian border. By vesting authority over this effort in the civilian leadership of the SNC, which now includes some senior former officers, the Friends Group will contribute to the consolidation of the civilian opposition and enhance its legitimacy as the de facto representative of the Syrian people. With such a framework in place, governments in the region will have the incentive to more effectively control unregulated flows of weapons into Syria. The FSA will become more professionalized, develop more effective command and control, and extend its authority, under civilian oversight, over what is now a fractious and fragmented armed opposition. Managing militarization thus increases prospects for reigning in the criminality that has accompanied the growth of the armed opposition and imposing a measure of accountability on fighters. It gives the civilian opposition a chance to begin building the infrastructure for the interim security arrangements that will be urgently needed in the event the Assad regime collapses.

The intent of such a framework is not to feed the ambition of some in the armed opposition to become a force capable of challenging the Syrian army head-on or to seize control over territory. Rather, it is to provide the SNC with the military capacity it needs to ensure the protection of civilians, support the political objectives of the uprising, and to put in place the foundations for a smoother transition to a post-Assad Syria. Regulating militarization may make it less likely that Syria will follow in Libya’s footsteps, struggling to contend with hundreds of local militias that resist demilitarization long after the old regime is gone.

The shift to managing militarization will be controversial. Yet in weighing the trade-offs involved, the costs of permitting it to continue along its current course need to be taken into account. The aim of U.S. policy is not simply regime change, but support for the aspiration of Syrians to create their own democracy after a half-century of corrupt authoritarian rule. By weakening civilian authority, deepening social fragmentation, leaving Syria vulnerable to external intervention, and consolidating the power of strongmen who could easily become local warlords, the process of militarization as it is unfolding today poses extraordinary threats to Syria’s future. While the success of efforts to manage militarization is far from certain, and the challenges it will face are not small, the potential payoffs that can result if it reduces prospects for the fragmentation of a post-Assad Syria and smoothes the path to a future Syrian democracy, more than justify the risks.

Steven Heydemann is a senior advisor at the US Institute of Peace’s Middle East Initiatives. 

Steven Heydemann is the Janet W. Ketcham 1953 chair in Middle East studies at Smith College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.