As Western powers move to arm various rebel groups fighting against the Assad regime in Syria, it is important to remember that arms are no silver bullet.
At the centre of the ongoing Syria crisis is the battle between those seeking to oust President Bashar Al-Assad from power—the Free Syrian Army—and an Al-Assad regime desperately seeking to retain its rule. Syria’s ‘civil war’ is similar to other internal state conflicts. Not only are civilians being both directly and indirectly targeted, but external actors have also been left to contemplate questions of intervention and support. While countries such as France and Britain have sought to increase access to weaponry by relaxing arms embargoes, the US has remained resistant until this point.
However, two recent developments will alter Syria’s future: first, US officials verified the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, providing the catalyst for arming Syrian rebels; second, Samantha Power was nominated as the next US ambassador to the UN. The latter development—the Power variable—is unlikely to significantly alter US foreign policy, but will surely boost the UN as an effective rhetorical device. On the other hand, the former variable will drastically alter the Syrian affair with unknown consequences and further immerse the region in deeper political turmoil.
Arming Syrian rebels is a complex issue, which will unfold over the next few months, but it will have lasting effects not only on the Syria crisis but also on the larger political landscape. This landscape often centres around a few simple questions such as ‘how did the situation get to this stage?’ or ‘why is the Middle East in political shambles?’ Unfortunately, such questions simplify complex regional and geopolitical issues.
Robert Fisk, writer for the Independent, captured not only the complexity of this situation, but also the naivety in the belief that arming Syria’s rebels is a simple task. In his piece, Fisk writes that “the US doesn’t plan to send weapons to the horrid rebels…only the nice rebels of the Free Syrian Army deserters who are battling the forces of Assad darkness in the interests of freedom, liberty, women’s rights and democracy”. Fisk counters this position stating “anyone who believes this knows nothing about war, killing, barbarity and especially greed. Because weapons are not just guns. They are currency. They are money.” At this point, the unintended consequences remain unknown. These weapons will find their way into the arms of an unintended group and contribute to deepening political cleavages in the future.
Samer Abboud’s piece on e-International Relations, ‘Should Western Nations Arm Syrian Rebels?’ astutely argues that the West, in this case the US, has convinced itself that arming the rebels will lead to a decisive victory. However, this logic also inherently delegitimises and neglects any other solution from arising. Furthermore, Abboud outlines how the US assumes, at least publicly, that the Free Syrian Army is an organised, hierarchical organisation that will be able to utilise this assistance and in turn overcome the Al-Assad regime seemingly without recognising the reality of the ground that includes ongoing support from Iran, Hizbollah and Russia.
Over the next few months, the ‘official’ arming of rebels will lead both internal and external jockeying to continue, as all sides with vested interests in resources seek to secure their idea of how this should unfold. The results of arming the rebels, and of the Syria crisis as a whole, will remain unclear for some time. However, it is clear that this action will not lead to stability.