Arm Syrian rebels to enable a political solution

Rebels use an old Nissan jeep in their fight against Syrian security forces

Rebels use an old Nissan jeep in their fight against Syrian security forces. Photo Credit: Flickr/Freedom House.

By Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security, IISSMiddle East

International lethargy has allowed the once-upbeat Syrian uprising to morph in profoundly dangerous ways. The picture is grim. The humanitarian toll is increasing, with a monthly death count now on par with the worst months of the sectarian war in Iraq. Syria’s civil war has spilt across the region in ways that Iraq’s never did. The long-feared radicalisation of segments of the Syrian opposition is happening.

The debate over the merits and costs of direct intervention may gain new momentum after the US presidential election, but in truth there is little appetite for it. This is not for a lack of imagination: a proposal put forward by the French strategic expert François Heisbourg calls for a no fly-zone over an 80-kilometre area stretching from the Turkish border to Aleppo, enforced solely by air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles and not necessitating deployment of air power over Syrian territory. But even such a limited intervention is proving too much for risk-averse western and Turkish policymakers.

That takes us back to the much-visited discussion about the wisdom and ways of arming the rebellion. This is already happening: thanks to the Syrian diaspora, Gulf individuals and states, and arms traffickers, ammunition and light weaponry are finding their way into rebel hands. But for all the accusations of a massive conspiracy, rebels still lack quality armaments, and the mechanism to distribute assistance has underperformed because of differences between supporters of the Syrian rebellion, competition between the rebel groups and the difficulty of sorting ‘good’ from ‘bad’ rebels.

Critics of the weaponisation strategy assert that more weapons only mean more violence (as if all violence were equal) and that it would be impossible to constrain the military behaviour of those receiving weapons. Its proponents respond that this is the moral thing to do given the violence visited upon the Syrian people by the Assad forces and that it would establish a military balance that would over time favour the rebels.

The popular view that better weaponry could erode the regime’s military superiority is tempting, but simplistic. Regime forces are undoubtedly overstretched, under-resourced, battered and undermined by defections and desertions. But they have adapted their military strategy accordingly, abandoning then pummelling areas where they have no hope of beating the population into loving or fearing the Assads again. The air force has been useful in that regard, terrorising civilians and going after large gatherings of rebels.

So the notion propagated by some of a sudden collapse or fissuring of the military, precipitated by anti-aircraft weaponry, is improbable. So far, no unit has entirely defected; many deserters don’t necessarily join the ranks of the rebellion, but rather adopt a wait-and-see attitude; elite troops have proven loyal to the regime and lethal against its enemies; and desertions have ironically allowed the Assads to rely on a more dependable military core.

Conversely, attempts to impose a command-and-control structure to guide rebel operations have failed. Only half of the armed groups operate under even the nominal leadership of the Free Syrian Army. Tensions among civilian combatants, defectors and foreign fighters are increasing, and competition over strategy, territory, tactics, resources and ideology is intensifying. If anything, the ill-conceived rebel operation in Aleppo is evidence of the limitations of the armed rebellion.

Even then, however, there are valid reasons to arm the rebels. Rebels engaged in street fighting may no longer realise it, but the game is still fundamentally political. In the short term, incentives and guarantees must be offered to key social and minority groups, and fence-sitters. At a later stage, a political discussion over Syria’s future will have to happen, not with the regime but rather with its remnants. It will require credible interlocutors able to deliver on compromises. The example of the recent, failed Eid truce is instructive: there was no one in the armed opposition to call and even then, no leverage over them.

It is the responsibility of Syrian civilian leaders and foreign governments to impress this on rebel commanders. Persuasion alone will not work, so there is a need to develop leverage by fostering dependency on weapons and funding. ‘Positive dependency’ is fundamentally about strengthening the political hand of the Syrian opposition. It is also about containing the worst instincts of warlords and military leaders who, having seized power through blood and force, will be reluctant to abide by the rules of politics.

Likewise, how desirable would it be for every rebel group, some of which have their own political or religious agendas, to develop their own supply networks or to master the expertise to build IEDs? These groups will have to disarm and disband for Syria to have a better future. Being able to starve them of weapons will certainly help.

Better weapons would require better training and organisation to be effective. Herein lies one last opportunity to instill discipline and create dependency. For external actors who worry about the day after the Assads, this is a momentous challenge.

Western states are increasingly marginal in the dynamics of the Syrian conflict. The question is whether they can afford to be irrelevant. They have dragged their feet so far, not investing enough attention and resources into this admittedly dangerous game while regime allies are marshaling all their resources in its support. Two Washington analysts, Andrew Tabler and Jeffrey White, have developed useful political and military criteria to vet and equip rebel groups.

Some will retort that it is too late and too risky. Many rebels already feel that they were abandoned in their moment of dire need, so why would they accept conditional help from outsiders now? But the realisation that victory for the opposition is not on the battlefield alone should prompt some new, if counter-intuitive, thinking.

This article originally appeared in The National.


One Comment on “Arm Syrian rebels to enable a political solution”

  1. [...] By Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security, IISS–Middle East International lethargy has allowed the once-upbeat Syrian uprising to morph in profoundly dangerous ways. The picture is grim…  [...]

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