Supplying Syria’s rebels with arms will do little to alleviate the bloodshed or directly remove Bashar al-Assad’s embattled government. However, by arming the rebels Barack Obama is convincing Vladimir Putin that his support of the Syrian regime is futile.
On June 13 US officials confirmed that America will begin supplying Syrian rebel groups with small arms and ammunition. This development has been officially attributed to Washington’s confirmation that Bashar al-Assad’s forces used sarin gas (a nerve agent) against the opposition, killing up to 150 people – the use of chemical weapons previously being labelled as a ‘red-line’ by President Obama. However, it is more likely that the American decision was made due to recent battlefield victories by Assad’s forces. June 5th’s collapse of rebel resistance in the city of Qusayr, an important logistics hub, being the main example of this. For the first time since the conflict began, Assad’s fall did not appear inevitable. Let us examine what Barack Obama can achieve by arming the Syrian rebels.
Removing the Assad regime, tough but worth the effort
Joshua Landis, the Director of the Center of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma estimates that there are 1,000 militias that make up the rebel forces. Such a decentralized military force can hardly be effective whether armed with American weapons or not. The rebel army could become more effective if Washington continues to train rebel fighters, but to what extent this is effective remains to be seen. On June 17, in an interview with PBS television, Obama confirmed this view by deriding the assumption that even heavier weapons, such as anti-tank or anti-helicopter rockets, could swiftly tip the balance of power in favour of the opposition. Equipping and training rebel fighters may remove Assad, but it will take years.
Logically, adding more weapons to a civil war will cause the levels of violence to increase rather than decrease. Even if Assad’s regime was removed, it is likely Syria would then fall into sectarian violence, and the civil war would rage on in a different form. In this scenario, the Syrian Alawite (a Shiite offshoot), and possibly even the Christian and Kurd populations, would feel the wrath of the newly empowered Sunni militias. This outcome would be eerily similar to Iraq’s civil war after the fall of Saddam, and even these massacres could not be stopped by 180,000 American troops on the ground. Therefore the outcome wherein Syria’s humanitarian nightmare is alleviated by arming even moderate rebel groups appears very unlikely.
Let us not forget that Bashar al-Assad is a merciless tyrant who massacres his own population. However unstable Syria may become in the decades following Assad’s fall, I firmly believe it is in the nation’s best interest to leave this dictatorship to the annals of history. Since arming the opposition’s forces cannot achieve this directly, the best way to go about ending Assad’s rule is to remove the regime’s foreign allies. I argue the Obama administration is doing just that.
Assad’s allies and American interests in the region
The fact is Iran and Hezbollah are pouring militias, arms, and funds into Syria in order to prop up the Assad regime. Russia too has been supplying the Assad government with weapons. This support has even been linked to Assad’s recent victories. Indeed armour and infantry units of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard fought alongside Syria’s recently formed National Defence Force during the Battle of Qusayr, Hezbollah on the other hand is training Assad’s soldiers in the tactics of urban warfare. These actions are not a sign of strength, but a signal that these actors see the Assad regime as weak, and are attempting to prop it up.
Keeping Iran, Hezbollah, and to some extent Russia, engaged by supplying their enemies with lethal equipment could be in America’s foreign interest, however cold-blooded and Machiavellian this strategy may be. Wars by proxy are never pretty, but they can be effective in weakening one’s enemies. Iran and Hezbollah are of course both enemies of America and its ally in the region: Israel. Arming Syria’s rebels could bleed these two allies of Assad and enemies of America/Israel dry. It will also ensure that although Assad may not fall any time soon, neither will the rebels be vanquished. This final assertion is critical in understanding how this strategy applies to Russia.
Promising developments at the G8 Summit – Putin reconsiders his support for Assad
However normal it is for a nation-state to act according to its interests, above is a cynical view of Washington’s new Syria strategy. The recent G8 summit in Northern Ireland adds promise to this otherwise dreary assumption. Russian President Vladimir Putin was not officially convinced to endorse the removal of Assad, but the G8 did lay out seven steps which will lead to a “transitional governing body.” Enacting a “transitional governing body” essentially infers that the Assad regime will be removed, but it does not say so as eloquently – basically the phrases mean the same thing.
As I alluded to in Russia is Ending Assad’s Reign – Why an Intervention now Appears Likely, Putin may be growing wary of supporting a mad dictator who both uses chemical weapons and is falling out of favour amongst the international community. The more Moscow supports the regime in Damascus, the more it loses valuable political capital with other middle-eastern actors, not to mention whatever government eventually replaces Assad. I get the notion that Russia, much like America, is reluctant to become involved in a civil war that is likely to rage on for years. So while supplying the rebels with arms may not remove Assad directly, because it assures the Kremlin that the rebel cause also will not falter, it dissuades the Russians from continuing their supporting of the regime. Rather than supporting a doomed madman, the Putin administration may be considering getting friendly with the new ‘transitional body.’
There is little doubt left in the mind of any viewer to Obama and Putin’s joint 17 June press conference at the 2013 G8 summit (below) that these two leaders are at odds. But as much as Putin may despise Obama’s aspirations on Syria, he is not stupid. Facing America in a middle-eastern proxy war is not a situation that will benefit Putin in his quest to secure ‘great-power’ status for the Russian Federation. Now that the Syrian rebel groups have American arms, they are unlikely to lose this war. As such, Putin may be backing down. These are slow steps, but better than no steps at all.
“A turning point for Bashar Assad?” The Economist, 8 June 2013.
“Barack Obama’s tentative step.” The Economist, 22 June 2013.
“G8 pledges action in Syria.” Power & Politics, CBC. 18 June 2013. http://www.cbc.ca/player/News/Politics/Power+%26+Politics/ID/2392266443/
“The regime digs in.” The Economist, 15 June 2013.
Zakaria, Fareed. Global Public Square, CNN. 16 June 2013.