In this week’s presidential debate on the U.S. role in the world, the candidates were asked if the United States should reassess its policy toward Syria. The candidates’ sympathetic position on helping rebels fight against the Syrian regime diverged sharply on whether and how to responsibly arm them.
The debate highlighted that the decision to arm or not to arm the Syrian rebels fighting the oppressive regime of Bashar Assad remains a divisive issue in Washington. During the debate, President Barack Obama warned against former Gov. Mitt Romney’s proposal to give heavy weapons to the Syrian opposition, arguing that the United States must be “absolutely certain that we know who we are helping, that we’re not putting arms in the hands of folks who eventually could turn them against us or our allies in the region.”
Romney continued to stress that if Washington worked with its partners and resources to “identify responsible parties within Syria,” then the United States could “make sure they have the arms necessary to defend themselves.” Although Romney cautioned that the United States needs to ensure that the arms do not “fall into the wrong hands,” he showed a willingness to pursue the arming of Syrian rebels as part of U.S policy.
The recent grounding of a Syrian passenger jet flying from Moscow to Damascus has raised the pressure coming from some quarters to arm Syrian rebels. Upon further inspection, it was discovered that equipment and munitions intended for the Syrian regime were secreted into the cargo hold of the aircraft. Although Russian authorities disputed the contents of the plane’s cargo and expressed outrage over its grounding, the discovery renewed attention on Moscow’s continued support of Assad’s government.
Indeed, on the heels of reports that light weapons and anti-aircraft guns have made their way to Syrian rebels, facilitated by Middle East allies, to help shoot down the Syrian government helicopters and airplanes taking part in a campaign of destruction and terror, Romney has argued that as president, he would ensure that the rebels would have the weapons they need to help them fight aerial attacks.
These positions demonstrate the range of rationales being used to argue in favor of arming the rebels — from mitigating the impact of the conflict on civilians to ensuring a stable region with additional U.S. allies.
First, there is the belief that weapons will allow the rebels to wage a fair fight against the regime. This could either allow them to protect civilians in rebel-held areas and provide more sophisticated weaponry that could lessen rebels’ dependence on IEDs and other tactics that harm civilians.
Second, the argument could be made that arming the rebels will hasten the end of a conflict with growing humanitarian and human-rights casualties.
Third, there is the belief that there is no endgame but regime change and the only way to hasten that and stop the slide into a sectarian and increasingly regional conflict is to arm the rebels. Alternatively, there is the theory that the regime will fall and that arming rebels now will ensure they remain our friends once in power.
But such a policy, no matter the justification, is shortsighted and could undermine peace, democracy and reform efforts in Syria over the long run. The rebels lack a cohesive political and military leadership and command and control. They are becoming more atomized. More sophisticated and/or powerful arms don’t solve this problem or make the rebels any more credible with Syria’s diverse citizenry or the international community. On the contrary, it could accelerate a devolution of the crisis and fuel an asymmetric conflict in which both sides are committing abuses.
History has demonstrated that once weapons are sold or provided to a particular party, the influence of the provider ends. It is impossible to ensure how and by whom the weapons will be transferred and reused. Fears that the weapons could fall into the hands of Syrian extremist groups, or those closely aligned with Al Qaeda, have been powerful deterrents for direct U.S. weapons sales to date. Recent examples from Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate how well-meaning U.S. arms exports have been turned against American troops by insurgents, Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The United States has no guarantee who will control and use weapons provided. And with a lack of security rampant, these weapons can easily fall into the wrong hands quickly and with devastating consequences.
Further, the region is already awash in weapons. Uncontrolled stockpiles in Libya and throughout North Africa in the aftermath of the Arab Spring have made weapons easily available. Porous and uncontrolled borders prevent weapons from remaining in the areas intended, and sending new supplies of weapons only exacerbates existing challenges from surplus weapons in the region, endangering the lives of U.S. troops, fueling violent conflict and potentially frustrating American foreign policy objectives for decades to come.
Finally, there is no guarantee what Syria will look like in three months, six months or even a year from now. Syria is already awash with weapons and those interested in arming Syria are not focusing on ways to mop up existing weapons and ensuring legal weapons are safely secured as part of Syria’s rebuilding plans and long-term strategy. It is impossible to make promises for weapons collection and destruction as well as stockpile security programs without clear planning. The lack of security in Syria and the fluidity of the conflict make such planning impossible. The United States and its allies do not know all of the actors involved nor who will be legitimate partners in a new Syria; as such, sending more weapons that cannot be controlled is a losing strategy all around.
This article originally appeared in Politico on October 26, 2012