Arming The Syrian Rebels Not Likely To Accomplish Anything
Arming the Syrian rebels may do nothing more than prolong a seemingly endless war, and pull the United States into a conflict it shouldn't be involved in.
With the Obama Administration now formally reconsidering its previous opposition to the idea of arming the Syrian rebels, Spencer Ackerman warns that taking that step isn’t necessarily going to guarantee that the Assad regime is going to fall:
As the Obama administration debates belatedly arming the Syrian opposition, military analysts are arriving at an uncomfortable conclusion: the U.S. can’t hand the rebels guns or rockets and expect them to topple dictator Bashar Assad. In fact, it may never happen.
Yes, the U.S. can provide lots of hardware, from shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to communications systems to armored vehicles. That military gear can prolong the conflict, preventing dictator Bashar Assad from crushing the rebels. It is unlikely to tip the balance of the war toward the rebels so they can decisively overthrow Assad.
Obama is considering a range of weaponry to the rebels, as described in the Washington Post, including surface-to-air missiles. The idea would be to ship them the weapons, bolster their war effort, and watch them topple the blood-soaked dictator — without a deeper U.S. military commitment.
Except that few strategists consider that realistic. Assad has a variety of advantages — an adaptive military estimated at over 50,000; complete air superiority; chemical weapons — that he will retain even if Obama opens a new arms pipeline. Overcoming those advantages means getting, at the least, U.S. and allied airpower involved — a step the Obama administration, and especially the military, want to avoid. Especially since it might involve shooting down Iranian planes, a fateful step.
“The Syrian regime is not collapsing, nor is it on the verge of collapse,” says Christopher Harmer, a former U.S. Navy officer and analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. “Everyone has been saying that for about 18 months. It has contracted, and may be forced to contract further; as long as they have control of their chemical weapons, I don’t think there is a collapse scenario.”
All of this ignores fundamental issues like who governs a post-Assad Syria or how to keep U.S. military aid for the Syrian rebels out of the hands of the faction of fighters aligned with al-Qaida. But it illustrates two things. First, there isn’t a magic menu of weapons Obama can give that will lead to a rebel victory; missiles, radios and trucks can draw the conflict out longer but not end it on favorable terms. Second, even a move as seemingly low-cost as arming the rebels risks escalating into a commitment the U.S. can find it hard to end. Obama should have thought about that before he started talking about red lines.
Ackerman’s points are all well-taken. The conflict in Syria is far different from the conflict in Libya, where an allied coalition intervention in March led to the collapse of the Gaddafi regime by August. Not only is the Syrian military larger, it’s also better organized, better trained, and better equipped. Additionally, whereas the Libyan military was largely made up of mercenaries from the countries south, the Syrian military, especially at the command level, is made up primarily of the Alawaites who are tremendously loyal to the Assad regime. Add into that the fact that, unlike the Libyans, the Syrians are continuing to get resupplied by the Iranians and the Russians and it becomes eminently clear that that handing over arms to the Syrian rebels isn’t likely to lead to the collapse of the Assad regime. As Ackerman readily grants, it may mean that the Syrian state will contract even further than it already has (the government has effectively ceded control of the Kurdish areas of the country according to most reports). Unless his core supporters abandon him, though, Assad is likely to survive. Indeed, the fact that he’s managed to survive for more than two years now while leaders from Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen have been deposed stands as strong evidence that getting rid of Bashar Assad is not an easy task at all. So, arming the Syrian rebels is just as likely to prolong the conflict as it is to hasten its conclusion.
This reality leaves us with a question that ought to be asked before we get further involved in the Syrian conflict. Let’s say we go ahead with arming the Syrian rebels and things turn out roughly the way that Ackerman is predicting in the piece quoted above. What is our next step? Do you send more powerful arms? Or, do we get more directly involved ourselves by setting up a no-fly zone, thus risking the possibility of putting American forces and American interests in the cross hairs of Syria’s allies in Hezbollah and Iran? These are the questions that the nation ought to be debating before the President makes what now seems the inevitable decision to arm rebels whom we can’t even say that we can trust at this point. Sadly, though, this nation has a long history of not asking the right questions before getting involved in messes like this.