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Intervention on the cheap

3 June 2013 By Hugo Dixon

The UK, France and maybe America are edging towards a policy of arming Syria’s “moderate” rebels if planned peace talks with the Assad regime don’t produce a breakthrough. The idea would be to tilt the civil war in favour of moderates and against both Assad’s Iranian-backed regime and al Qaeda-style jihadists. But the scheme, while superficially attractive, is fraught with risk.

The West’s three nuclear powers clearly don’t have much appetite for intervention in Syria. Nobody is pushing for an Iraqi or Afghan-style invasion. There is also precious little desire to impose a Libyan-style no-fly zone – not least because it would be impossible to get United Nations’ authority for such a policy given Russia’s steadfast support for the Assad regime.

The West is anyway struggling to clarify why it should get involved in this increasingly grisly sectarian war. Syria doesn’t have much oil or gas, unlike Libya and Iraq. Nor is Assad threatening the West with al Qaeda-style attacks. It could even be argued, on the basis of realpolitik, that it could be in the West’s interests if Sunni jihadists and the Iran-Assad-Hezbollah Shi’ite axis exhausted each other in an orgy of mutual destruction.

There are, though, two reasons why the West might not wish to stand by as the death toll, already over 80,000, climbs ever higher. First, civil wars have a tendency to drag on. The one in neighbouring Lebanon, where I spent last week, lasted 15 years and left over 120,000 dead. Given Syria is about five times Lebanon’s size, a similar rate of killing would result in more than 600,000 deaths. Although humanitarian considerations are rarely the driver of foreign policy, it would be good if Western intervention really could cut the killing of innocent people – admittedly a big “if”.

The second, more hard-headed reason for the West not washing its hands of Syria is concern for spillover effects. There are already signs of Lebanon being sucked into the conflict: Hezbollah-dominated areas have seen rocket attacks and skirmishes with Syrian rebels in recent days.

If an al Qaeda-style regime were to take control of Damascus, with its presumed huge stash of chemical weapons, who knows what havoc it would wreak? It might not be just Israel that would feel the heat on its border given that many Sunni jihadists see their mission as global.

Such thinking seems to be behind the emerging plan to arm the moderate rebels. This would be intervention on the cheap, since it would not involve the West committing its own soldiers or weapons to the fight. Britain and France last week succeeded in lifting a European Union embargo on weapons sales, despite strong opposition from other European nations which want to keep out of the conflict completely.

Before pressing the button, the UK, France and possibly America (whose position on arms supplies is not clear) want to give peace one last chance. They are trying, so far without much success, to get Assad and the moderates (principally the Syrian National Coalition) round the negotiating table.

The prospect of supplying weapons is, in turn, being used as a carrot and stick to advance the peace talks. The moderates have an incentive to play ball because, otherwise, they won’t get weapons. Assad has an incentive to take part; otherwise his enemies will be better armed.

The snag is that nobody is holding out much hope for the peace talks. And the corollary of failure is that Western weapons supplies would then roll into Syria.

Advocates of such a policy argue that there is a triangular contest in Syria. In one corner is Assad, armed by Russia and Iran, and supported by foreign Shi’ite fighters – mainly from Iraq and Lebanon (in the form of Hezbollah). In another corner are the jihadists, financed by money from the Gulf, and supported by Sunni fighters from the Muslim world.

In the third corner are the moderates, who aren’t getting much help from anywhere. They are mainly Sunni too. And they are sometimes fighting alongside the jihadists against Assad. But because they are poorly resourced, they have failed to make much headway against Assad, while the jihadists have taken an increasingly important role in the revolution.

The idea is that, if the moderates are properly armed, they will not only start winning against Assad. They will also be able to edge aside the jihadists. There is also a parallel attempt by Saudi Arabia to channel money from the Gulf to moderates. Although staunchly Sunni, it saw how its original help for al Qaeda in Afghanistan boomeranged into an attempt to foment revolution at home.

Advocates of the pro-moderate policy don’t deny that some of the presumably fairly sophisticated weapons intended for moderates may end up in the hands of jihadists. Nor do they deny that Iran and Russia may react by stepping up their own arms supplies to Assad, with the result that the pace of killing will increase. Their argument, rather, is that conflict will end sooner and that whatever comes after Assad is more likely to be pro-Western.

While that is certainly possible, there are other scenarios. One is that the so-called moderates – who aren’t Western-style liberal democrats to start off with – may become radicalised as the conflict goes on. So a victory for them might not be so good for the West after all.

Another worry is that it may be too late to turn the tide in the moderates’ favour. If so, they may eventually decide to throw their lot in with the jihadists – taking their sophisticated weapons with them. Syria would then turn from a triangular contest into a bilateral one. The West, having unwittingly armed the jihadists, might ultimately conclude it would have been better off with Assad.

Yet another concern is that weaponry intended for Syria won’t stay there. It could be redeployed in other countries, creating yet more carnage – and possibly threatening the West’s interests more directly.

It is for these reasons that most European countries – and, until recently, even Britain, France and America – have been opposed to arming the rebels.

Two years ago the Syrian rebels were pursuing almost entirely nonviolent tactics to unseat Assad. He then cracked down so brutally that the revolution became militarised. Many of the nonviolent activists were killed; others resorted to violence themselves; yet others moved out of the struggle because there wasn’t room for them.

There are, though, still Syrians who would like to find a way of living together in peace. Now may not be the time for demonstrations and protests of the sort that are now racking Istanbul’s Taksim Square. But nonviolent activists can still play a role in building the institutions of a civil society. It is a shame that the West has spent so little effort identifying and supporting these people. They may be able to influence the conflict as it progresses – and they will be sorely needed if a peaceful Syria is ever to be rebuilt.

 

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