Arms for Syrian Rebels: USA’s Bad Move?

Posted on June 15, 2013 by


Acting on evidence that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons (therefore crossing the so-called ‘red line’), the White House has announced that it will begin arming the Syrian Opposition.

So why are the Americans arming the rebels? Firstly it seems important to point out that this is nothing new. Croatian-made weapons, paid for by Saudi Arabia, have already been seen in the hands of the opposition. It is unlikely that this action was not in some way sanctioned or approved by the US. However, the decision to arm the rebels directly is significant, and marks a shift from observation and non-lethal assistance to active involvement in the conflict. The motives for this decision, besides the apparent use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, are worth exploring (especially since some evidence points to rebel use of chemical agents as well).

The US, as part of NATO, assisted the Libyan rebels fighting Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and there are obviously parallels between this and the current situation in Syria. Both conflicts were sparked by the Arab Spring and involved armed groups seeking to overthrow their governments by violent means. However, there are probably more differences than similarities. The Libyan opposition were able to present something akin to a united front against the loyalist forces, and were able to coordinate their military campaign. The Syrian opposition on the ground are made up of various groups who are essentially all fighting the same enemy separately.

Chris Philips, Lecturer in International Relations at Queen Mary and former member of the Economist Intelligence Unit, described the rebels’ situation:

“They loosely have the same goal, which is that they want to topple [President Bashar al-] Assad… However, most militias … are local groups, they formed locally and have local concerns, and whilst they’ve been able to coordinate some attacks there’s also been a lot of difficulties in keeping them united with the same immediate aims”.

It is also uncertain how much control the Syrian National Coalition, the political organisation incorporating various rebel groups, has over the actual forces fighting on the ground. Some groups fighting Bashar al-Assad do not fight for the SNC.

As well as not necessarily having the same aims as each other, the rebels do not necessarily envisage the same outcome in the event of their victory as does the US and the West. The West appears to hope that if the rebels won a moderate, pro-western, government would be established. This is, however, unlikely. As has been seen in Egypt, it is more likely to be a radical government that eventually arises from the current chaos. Many groups are deeply Islamist, and the Al-Nusra Front has declared its allegiance to Al-Qaeda. It will be a difficult task for the US to ensure that its weapons reach the right hands.

The Obama administration will be seeking to distract the US public, and indeed the world, from recent revelations regarding the NSA surveillance operation (codenamed Prism). It will also want to pacify Israel, whose government is growing increasingly unsettled with ongoing events in the region. It may be that intervention in Syria will provide a distraction from domestic issues, but the action may yield very little, and risk destabilising the region further.

The UK’s position on the matter is still uncertain. Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed that the UK has “made no decision to arm the opposition, but it was right to lift the arms embargo”. While he confirmed that “there is credible evidence of multiple attacks using chemical weapons in Syria, including the use of the abhorrent agent Sarin” he would not be drawn on the UK’s future position. However it is likely that, if the US proceeds with arming the Syrian opposition, whether or not this sanctioned by the UN, the UK may follow suit.

The situation is volatile and changes day by day. With a death toll now topping 90,000 the West does not want to stand idly by, but it may well be that the US has misjudged the situation. Syria is not just another Arab Spring revolution; it is a brutal and bloody civil war.

CC Image Courtesy of Christiaan Triebert, Flickr