Is Arming Syria’s Opposition Managing the Crisis or just Meddling?

Is Arming Syria’s Opposition Managing the Crisis or just Meddling?

Posted on March 5th, 2012 in Blog

The drumbeat for intervention in Syria grows louder as President Bashar al-Assad has taken a page out of his father’s playbook – Hama, 1982 – by shelling the city of Homs for three weeks.  The severe humanitarian crisis continues to grow and Syria is at risk of a Lebanon-esque implosion into civil war.  An internal conflict cannot be avoided at this point, but it could be possible for the conflict to be managed to a degree by regional actors through overt assistance to the Free Syrian Army.

Insurgency: Help wanted, inquire within

The Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose collection of anti-regime elements and army defectors, has launched an insurgency.  As Secretary Clinton acknowledged on recently, “They will, from somewhere, somehow, find the means to defend themselves, as well as begin offensive measures.”  There is a market for insurgency skills and armaments, and Sunni populations in Iraq, as well as al Qaeda, are reaching out to provide materiel support for anti-regime elements in Syria.  It would be highly preferable for the FSA to collaborate with known international actors (such as Special Forces from the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, or Qatar) rather than militant or terrorist entities who can offer their skills in order to advance their own extremist agendas.  Overt ties between the FSA and outside forces would also hopefully embolden more defections from Syrian military.  Additionally, establishing overt ties with the FSA would hopefully allow legitimate international actors “get in on the ground floor” to help shape the nature of the conflict, and hopefully, forge the eventual peace. 

However, providing weapons to the FSA, as some US lawmakers have already suggested, does not come without risk.  It is easy to want to play “Charlie Wilson’s War,” but what is the end game?  A desperate al Assad regime perceiving threats from abroad, especially from the West, could seek out assistance from Iran, funnel increasingly destructive weapons to Hezbollah, engage in wholesale civilian slaughter, or attack the Golan Heights, just to name a few possible moves.  Syria’s retaliatory potential should not be ignored, nor should the proliferation of Syria’s chemical weapons and portable anti-aircraft missiles in increased chaos of war. 

Conflict management at the margin

Throughout Syria there are many visible reminders of outsiders’ conquests and interventions in the Levant: Roman ruins at Palmyra, Crusader castles along the coast, Ottoman-era mosques, and bullet holes in Souq Al-Hamidiyah roof from French strafing during the 1920’s revolt.  No wonder Syrians are often hyper-suspicious of outsiders’ intentions.  Any attempt at conflict management therefore must be done through local actors; this is Syria’s conflict, and outside actors must take an appetite suppressant for how much this conflict can be managed by the outside world.  Syria’s neighbors are rightfully concernedwithspill-over, and it is good to see the Gulf Cooperation Council take an active role.  Conflict management at the margin by regional actors – perhaps providing a managed supply of weaponry and training to elements within the Free Syrian Army – could be better than an unregulated approach where Iraq-hardened terrorist entities could continue to ply their services in a Syrian insurgency.  But the resolution needs to come from within, with Syrians settling the Syria question, not outsiders.