More Problems with Arming Syrian Rebels
By Taylor Marvin
As detailed by Robert S. Ford in recent testimony, the United States is already providing considerable non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition. However, the Obama administration has so far remained wary of directly supplying the rebels with weapons, a proposal supported by the French and British governments. But this non-lethal assistance hasn’t stopped proposals for the US to begin supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition, calls supported by the rebels themselves. This, of course, is an attractive compromise for Western governments: barring a major shift in the two year old conflict the Syrian rebels appear unable to militarily defeat Assad’s forces, but Western governments have been reasonably hesitant to directly enter the conflict.
In Foreign Policy John Hudson recently listed the weapons systems that could “change the game” if supplied to the rebels. The arguments Hudson makes are true, in a limited sense. If widely proliferated to the opposition weapons supplies would, as Hudson argues, increase their combat capabilities. Supplying modern MANPADS to the rebels would restrict the operational freedom of Assad’s air assets, and anti-armor weapons systems would allow rebels to better destroy regime armor and restrict regime mobility. But importantly, even if these weapons systems were supplied to the Syrian rebels they would only represent potential marginal gains in their ability to contest territory with the regime, and wouldn’t necessarily ‘turn the tide in their favor’. Western governments’ assurances that weapons would be kept out of the hands of jihadi-influenced rebel groups, reportedly more capable, dedicated, and experienced than their less-radicalized compatriots, casts doubt over the optimistic assertions of arms supplies’ proponents, even if there was any way to reasonably assure donor governments could control whose hands their weapons actually ended up in. A clear-sighted of arming the Syrian rebels should conclude that it’s unlikely the marginally increased combat capability granted by increasing weapons flows to the rebels would meaningfully increase their potential to end — or, more accurately, win — the war.
Organizational and logistic assets, not weapons, are the greatest determinant of a fighting force’s practical capabilities. Even if Western militaries could train elite rebel units, as Hudson suggests, it is unclear if the intensity of the ongoing conflict allows opposition forces leeway to build these capabilities. Ultimately international observers probably suggest shipping arms to rebel fighting’s simply because it is one of the few options available to practically oppose the regime while still low-commitment enough to remain acceptable to intervention-wary domestic audiences, not because of any reasonable expectation that arming the rebels will significantly increase the prospect of an Assad military defeat.
Indeed, the greatest problem with arming the rebels is that while it is a low-commitment option, it isn’t commitment free. Arming the Syrian rebels necessarily ties international credibility to the possibility of an opposition military victory, while falling short of the commitment necessary to tangibly increase the chances of said victory. This is a (much) milder problem of the commitment problem Western militaries encountered in Libya. Committing NATO airpower to the conflict invested Western prestige in its outcome, while for months rebel fighters aided by Western air and UK special operations forces assets appeared unable to bring the conflict to a close. Because arming Syria’s rebels avoids direct international involvement this policy avoids much of the commitment problem that plagued the intervention in Libya. But it still is a potential problem. Arming the rebels will — eventually — publicly invest outside governments into the conflict’s outcome to a much greater degree than the are now. But arming the rebels falls even farther below the commitment threshold necessary to end the conflict than Western airpower’s entry into the Libyan conflict did. Outside governments should be wary of committing themselves to a conflict they are not prepared to directly win.