Arming the Syrian Rebels: A Bad Case of Deja-Vu
Should the U.S. send lethal arms to one side in a brutal civil war?
Earlier this week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee answered that question with a hearty “yes”, voting 15-3 to arm the Syrian rebels in that nation’s brutal civil war.
With widespread war crimes and other abuses being committed by both sides in the conflict, Congress should think twice before endorsing lethal weaponry as the only strong action we can take to support the Syrian people. The bill, sponsored by committee chairman Robert Menendez (D – New Jersey) and ranking member Bob Corker (R – Tennessee), was a bi-partisan effort to get the Obama administration to cave into pressure to arm the rebels.
The Obama administration has been concerned about the Syrian rebel fighters’ ties to Al-Qaeda and the mounting human rights abuses by rebel forces. At Peace Action West we share the administration’s concerns. We absolutely need to do even more to help the Syrians. But the choice is not between arming the rebels and doing nothing. The U.S. could help, for example, by parachuting in (figuratively at a minimum) badly needed humanitarian aide to the region. That would give immediate protection and support to Syrian noncombatants much more quickly and effectively than sending arms to rebels who could use those weapons to harm more noncombatants.
So far the administration has addressed the Syrian crisis by rallying international humanitarian efforts to protect Syrians impacted by the crisis. There are over a million and a half refugees in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon that we can focus on getting help to. The administration had also funneled $115 million in non-lethal aide directly to the Syrian opposition for Syrian still in Syria. This aid includes money to rebuild basic services like water, electricity, and public health in opposition controlled areas. Secretary of State Kerry is also leading a major diplomatic initiative with Russia, the Arab League and other regional players that would lead to peace talks beginning next month. These efforts can and should get increased funding and political emphasis.
It’s easy to get seduced by a narrative that arming the noble resistance would allow then to triumph against the evil dictator. But that’s far from the reality on the ground in Syria. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others have detailed egregious human rights violations by rebel forces. Documented abuses include kidnapping, summary executions, targeting of minorities, torture, indiscriminate attacks that harm civilian non-combatants, and the use of child soldiers. These are the “good guys”? Needless to say, the violence of the Syrian authorities has been truly reprehensible. Assad’s regime are responsible for more than their share of the bloodshed. But both sides are clearly engaging widespread and serious abuses and increasing the firepower of one of the sides isn’t going to protect innocent bystanders.
Déjà vu all over again?
Not only are some of the Syrian rebels violating human rights with the weapons they already have, factions within the fractious opposition coalition have ties to Al-Qaeda. Rebel fighters and sometimes entire units have been deserting the main armed opposition group the Free Syrian Army for the al-Nusra front an al-Qaeda affiliate – their arms are no doubt coming with the deserting soldiers. Jabhat al-Nusra, sometimes called al-Qaeda’s Syrian arm, was founded by al-Qaeda in Iraq and they are an important part of the Syrian armed opposition. In areas controlled by al-Nusra their are reports of extremist repression like harassment and detention of women and girls for not wearing headscarves. Sound familiar? There’s a certain Alice in Wonderland quality in Congress’s eagerness to arm a coalition that includes strong participation from an Al-Qaeda group using the brutal tactics from of the Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan. Things sure do get curious on Capitol Hill.
Supporters of arming the rebels say they the arms will only go to “vetted” elements within the opposition. But as Rosa Brooks, a former civilian leader in the Department of Defense, pointed out in Foreign Policy:
“It’s not clear that we even have the ability to provide weapons just to the “good guys.” Even if we think we can identify “the good guys” within the opposition, and then ensure that weapons are delivered only to them, there’s no guarantee that the good guys will remain the good guys (as opposed to taking their nice new U.S.-supplied weapons with them when they cross over to al-Nusra). And even if the good guys stay “good” in the short term, I wouldn’t place bets on their long-term goodwill towards the United States.”
In the same piece Brooks also points out caches of U.S. weapons intended for the Afghan police have wound up in the hands of the Taliban. Sound familiar? The same kind of thing happened in Iraq. If the U.S. can’t keep track of the weapons it is handing out to armed forces it is closely allied with in countries where tens of thousands of U.S. troops are stationed how will be able to monitor where these weapons are going from afar? Have we learned nothing from arming another loosely affiliated group of rebels — the proto-Taliban Mujahideen and the likes of Osama bin Laden? Does Congress need to be sent back in school to take Blowback 101 again to avoid being doomed to repeat history?
Cold feet even among interventionists
Even past supporters of arming the rebels are getting cold feet as the brutality of the rebels as well as the fractured and dubious nature of their coalition becomes more clear. Persian Gulf States are getting cold feet about their own plans to arm the rebels. Josh Rogin writing in The Daily Beast pointed out that here in the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, who had originally supported arming the opposition, appeared to getting more concerned about such an approach:
Last month, Dempsey testified that the idea of arming the opposition had become more complicated because U.S. understanding of the Syrian opposition groups was not clear.
“My military judgment is that now that we have seen the emergence of al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham notably, and now that we have seen photographs of some of the weapons that have been flowing into Syria in the hands of those groups, now I am more concerned than I was before,” he said.
It’s tempting to imagine that arming the good guys against the bad guys will protect the people we all want to protect. In Syria that’s dubious because both sides are already heavily armed and have fought to a stalemate. In general, the history of U.S. arming “non-state actors” has often ended in great harm to the very people we were trying to protect. From Angola to Nicaragua to the former Yugoslavia, U.S. arms intended to help innocent victims ended up fueling conflict and hurting innocents.
Congress should slow down on its plan to fund the Syrian rebels. If you agree call your Senator and ask them to vote FOR increased humanitarian funding and diplomatic efforts, and AGAINST arming human rights abusers. Call your Senate offices directly or you can reach them through the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.