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Arming the (Right) Syrian Rebels

Next month, March 2013, will mark the second anniversary of the Syrian uprising. This bloody conflict, as I have repeatedly written, has been characterized by the bombing of bread lines, town-wide massacres and burgeoning sectarian attacks. The enormity of the death toll, 70,000 and counting, should elicit shock to even the casual follower of international affairs.

Admittedly, the number is staggering, but when one considers the fact that the conflict is far from finished and that the rebels have yet to gain full control of even one major urban area, it will pale in comparison to the final death toll. This is not to mention that death tolls are highly unreliable, particularly in a conflict where on-the-ground reporting is difficult, if not impossible in some areas. The point of the matter is, to put it plainly, that too many Syrians have died and that the revolution in the heart of the Middle East has gone on for too long.

A stable and orderly transition may be impossible at this point, confessional hatreds too deep, the Syrian leadership implicit in Assad’s murderous rampage and a military which by all accounts has transformed into a militia; raping, pillaging and looting. The external Syria opposition has also compounded this issue, while acting as the face of the revolution for international television, individuals such as Moaz al-Khatib, the National Coalition President, have failed to bridge the divide between external organizations and fighting groups inside Syria.

At its current pace, the conflict, at minimum, will last until the end of this year, leaving more death and destruction in its wake. The international community, in particular the United States, can help resolve the Syrian conflict sooner rather than later. What is needed is concise and thought-out plan to arm vetted Syrian rebel groups, in addition to the “non-lethal” aid already supplied.

Last week’s testimony by outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta should be viewed with dismay. Panetta told the Senate Armed Service Committee that the Obama administration had scrapped plans to arm Syrian rebels, should be viewed with dismay. Under the plan, the United States, in coordination with an unnamed regional ally, would vet, train and supply rebel groups with the weaponry required for bringing the fight to Assad. While not explicitly stated, it is clear that this would include assault rifles, most probably AK-47 variants, heavy machine guns, typically of the truck-mounted and squad level varieties, anti-tank weaponry including the Russian-made Metis models, and less likely though possible, less advanced anti-air weaponry, with the SA-7 being a probable choice. Weapon systems capable of threatening the regime’s MiG fighter jets and helicopters have become a point of contention, with neighboring allies worried that they may fall into the hands of extremists and end up being used against the West or Western interests.

International Factors:

According to Panetta, three factors played into the administration’s decision not to adopt the plan put forward by now sacked CIA Director David Petraus, with the support of the Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey and himself. Each of these issues revolved around the possible dangerous repercussions that heavier involvement in the Syrian conflict would entail. Starting at the international level, it seems that the White House believed that further involvement could elicit a response from the Iranians either within the region or internationally. Having been involved in a variety of terrorist attacks since 1979, many international observers are pointing to Tehran for Hezbollah’s bombing of an Israeli tour bus in Bulgaria last July. Needless to say, it is not above the Islamic Republic to make its disapproval known through extra-political means.

Russia and China also factor into the administration’s decision making. With the failure of the much lauded “reset” with Moscow, a pullout from Afghanistan in the near future, and recent moves by Vladimir Putin aimed at discrediting Washington; the Obama administration is not looking to step on any Russian toes.

With China, the “peaceful rise” of the Asian dragon has been met by the American pivot to Asia. Tense land disputes and a rise in military spending by the Chinese have ensured that the United States will want to approach the South China Sea, one of the world’s most vital trade routes, with caution and through a framework of cooperation. By passing China on the Syrian issue could further sour relations and in combination with a slight against Russia could make American maneuvering on the world stage slightly more difficult.

While the three abovementioned issues are of great concern for the United States, it must be acknowledged that the repercussions from the Syrian conflict may cause greater long term complications for America. The Obama administration must approach the conflict with a more robust policy, while giving assurances to Beijing and Moscow and further isolating Iran.

Inside Syria and the Region:

According to the International Herald Tribune, senior U.S. officials told the newspaper that the veto was due to fears about risks associated with becoming more deeply involved in the conflict, including weapons falling into the wrong hands. This has been an issue both internally in Syria and in regards to spill over into the neighboring states of Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan.

This has been a repetitive theme, one which I supported at the beginning of the revolution. Arming the rebels at that point would have put a minimally better armed rag-tag against the full force of the Syrian army, which at that point had held back its full force. The issue today is that Assad’s army, a de facto militia, has utilized every weapon in its arsenal and has devolved to targeting civilian infrastructure, hospitals and schools. Rebel groups centered around military defectors, although divided into various provincial military councils and brigades, now have top-down command structures. The first factor highlights the need for robust involvement by the West and its allies, the latter shows that potential Syrian partners have the professionalism required to handle and store weapons safely.

The professionalism of these groups and the ability to easily identify these units within Syria (thanks to YouTube, social media and on the ground intelligence) ensures that a fruitful relationship between the West and these groups are plausible. Vetting, training, arming and planning along the lines of the Petraeus plan would be relatively quick and easy process. Turkey and Jordan both boast strong intelligence services with a history of supporting non-state actors in prolonged conflict and would not want to see these arms fall in the wrong hands.

While the initial payoff for such a strategy would see rebel units stepping up the pressure on the Assad regime, the secondary result of arming secular, defector-led units is just as important. Fears over weapons falling into the wrong hands and spillover associated with radical groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, are ever present in Washington’s decision making, and rightly so. That being said, these fears can be mitigated by Western action.

Containing the Radicals:

By bolstering the capacities of Western-friendly rebel units, particularly those under the auspices of civilian or military councils, the balance of power would shift in favor of moderate groups. Jabhat al-Nusra and its myriad of Salafist allies within the country, including the very capable Ahrar al-Sham force in Idlib governorate, have grown stronger after overcoming a variety of regime bases and airfields.

While moderate units have employed the same tactics, attacking regime soft points in rural and suburban areas, they have been unable to reap the spoils of war as concretely as Jabhat and its allies. Luckily, Jabhat has so far been unable to obtain anti-air missiles that could pose a threat to civilian airliners. The capabilities of jihadist groups should be replicated and exceed in providing weaponry to Syrian rebels in order to tip the balance of these fighting forces, helping to ensure that they become the arbiters of post-Assad Syria. Without a procurement plan the fall of Damascus could herald the birth of radical enclaves within the country and a tug-of-war between better armed jihadists and their moderate counterparts.

Containing Regional Spillover:

Assad’s survival plan has centered on pushing this internal conflict to Syria’s borders. The flow of refugees into neighboring countries has amounted to almost 800,000 and this is not to mention the nearly two million Syrians internally displaced.  Ill-equipped neighboring states, most notably Jordan and Lebanon, are seeing their internal stability weathered away by this reality. In addition, violent spillover in the latter country and Turkey has put the precarious balancing acts in both countries on edge.

If the Syrian conflict is to be further drawn out stability in all the surrounding countries will be affected creating a proverbial mushroom cloud of conflict and decay in the heart of the Middle East. Whether it is the Kurdish issue with Turkey, anti-regime protests in Jordan or the sectarian balance in Lebanon, the United States may have to pick up some or all of the pieces when this area of the world disintegrates. Providing training and weapons to the opposition will hasten the fall of Assad, ensure that spillover does not become a prolonged process and in turn save the territorial and political integrity of neighboring countries.

One note must be made though, one which has been largely absent from the discussion in Washington and other Western capitals. Those that call for the arming of Syria’s rebels must also, and vigorously, champion the allocation of funds and medical support to the neighboring countries that will see heightened inflows of refugees as a result. 

  • Good article Alex. Is your pro-armament stance solely focused on ending the bloodshed, or is there the implicit assumption that such a move would endear the post-Assad regime to the US?

    • James,

      My core argument for arming Syria’s secular rebels is to both end the bloodshed and to ensure that further spillover does not occur. The latter concern, in my view, is the most pressing and once which could have negative ramifications for the region and the ongoing Saudi-Iran proxy war.

      While arming these groups inside Syria would provide a modicum of indebtedness to the US and Western suppliers, I am not among those who believe that it will magically result in a Western oriented government in Damascus. Rather, I believe that the Arab Spring highlights that many populations do harbor anti-Western sentiments, some based on historical wrong doings and many built on the rhetoric of regional governments. This is an issue that the West will have to deal with and must therefore engage emerging Arab leaders to foster more pro-Western policies in addition to the dismissal of anti-Western sentiment through engagement with the Arab street.

      Arming these rebels does not provide the best option and I was previously against such an action. That being said, with the Islamist fighting groups gaining prominence and the Syrian conflict lasting until at least the end of this year, bolstering those who are loyal to the idea of an intact Syrian entity and democratic representation is the only option. It is better to have a government that will need to balance the opinions, sometimes anti-Western, of its populace and its international commitments (ensuring mutually beneficial engagement with the West in the realms of international governance, fiscal loans and global trade ) than one composed of Salafi, Islamist or radical international groups which seek to disrupt the current international/regional system.


      Alex C.


Alexander Corbeil
Alexander Corbeil

Alexander Corbeil is a Substantive Analyst with The SecDev Group focusing on conflict and instability in the developing world. He has written on the topics of radicalization, sectarianism and terrorism in the Levant and Iraq for a number of publications and is also a contributor to Sada: Middle East Analysis. You can follow Alexander @alex_corbeil