Arm the Rebels
by Sean McElwee
The past four decades are littered with genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass murder, famine and rape. Juxtaposed with each terrifying tale, from Cambodia, East Timor, Iraq, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Cyprus, Rwanda, Srebrenica, Kosovo, Haiti and Darfur are stories of American ignorance, apathy and intransigence. Cambodia came too close to Vietnam (a conflict which was partially responsible for the Khmer Rouge ascendency). Rwanda came too soon after Somalia. Sometimes politics ruled the day; certainly Pol Pot was bad, but North Vietnam should not be allowed to expand, certainly East Timorese bodies mattered, but not as much as Suharto’s oil. And yet, even with the support of a wide swath of the political elite and intelligentsia – expelling the Khmer Rouge by force may have been the only policy matter that McGovern and Buckley ever agreed upon; stopping Milosevic by force brought together Dole and McCloskey.
After each catastrophe the American people are promised that their country – the most powerful in the world – will never again sit upon its hands while dictators ravage the countries they rule. And then, when the frantic cries for help and the widespread reports of terror reach Washington, they fall again upon deaf ears.
It’s time for the United States to take a stand, albeit belated, on the Syria question – it’s time to arm the rebels.
There are, in fact, numerous ways that the U.S. can and has intervened in various international situations – each with its own risks and rewards. Air strikes have been used with varying success, but they risk the possibility that the dictators retaliate on their citizens- like Milosevic did in Kosovo. To prevent this, troops can be deployed, but Americans are notoriously shy of bodies – like in Somalia and Iraq. Arming the rebels solves both problems; it allows civilians some protection from repression but does not risk United States troops, but it can backfire later – think Mujahedeen. But more often than not, rebel forces stop the bloodshed. In Rwanda it was Tutsi Rwandian Patriot Front led by Paul Kagame that ended the 100 day long slaughter – had they been better armed the genocide may have ended sooner.
Doing nothing is not a neutral position – dictators can read history books too.
In Rwanda, the Hutu killed ten Belgian UN peacekeepers to “guarantee Belgian withdraw from Rwanda” – an event they knew would occur after witnessing American fickleness in Somalia. You can be sure that the next tyrant is watching the events in Syria carefully. The solution offered by those who oppose intervention – keeping Assad in power is absurd for two reasons. First, things weren’t rosy in Syria before the rebellion: Assad ruled with an iron fist. Syria’s human rights record was considered one of the worst in the world: Assad had developed a cult of personality, silenced free speech, tortured and killed political enemies and Second, Assad is not a kind or honest man; he continue to drag gullible diplomats along on a leash. The United States has tried talking to Syria for the last two years, it hasn’t worked. Calls for intervention began last year when there were 10,000 dead; now 70,000 are (at a minimum), and we have no forward steps to show for it.
Assad isn’t going to come to the table for a meaningful deal until there is a rough balance; we learned this lesson with Milosevic. Roger Cohen writes in the New York Times:
There is no policy for Syria at this stage that does not involve significant risk. But the only cease-fire I can see that will not amount to an ephemeral piece of paper is one based on a rough balance of forces. For that, the Free Syrian Army must be armed.
Another reason there is no non-intervention option is that the United States is currently arming Syrian rebels – through backchannels. The New York Times reports,
The United States is not sending arms directly to the Syrian opposition. Instead, it is providing intelligence and other support for shipments of secondhand light weapons like rifles and grenades into Syria, mainly orchestrated from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The reports indicate that the shipments organized from Qatar, in particular, are largely going to hard-line Islamists.
The Economist reports that the Jihadists are seeing a fertile ground and showing up for battle by the busload:
Salafism, the strict version of Islam that has gained ground elsewhere in the Arab world, never found fertile ground in Syria. But this is changing, too. Western intelligence sources say that jihadists are now arriving in Syria by the busload. Jabhat al-Nusra, the most devout Syrian battalion, which shares al-Qaeda’s worldview, is getting stronger. In December an armed group trashed a Shia prayer house in Zarzour, a town in Idleb. Though many Syrians reject the jihadists the war is becoming religious.
So if we’re worried about a Mujahideen scenario, the most likely way to bring that about is to continue the present course: funneling weapons through countries known to support Jihadist groups. Arming the rebels is not a hair-brained idea – it has widespread bipartisan support, from Panetta, Dempsey and Clinton. To help the millions of Syrians without a home the policy should certainly be paired with safe zones – like those formed during the Iraq-Iran war to protect the Kurds – but military protection, there could be another Srebrenica. As a recent Financial Times article points out, the rebels are the only group not being armed,
Russia and Iran provide real support to the Assads, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar channel resources to the jihadis and Muslim Brotherhood, respectively. The military council created by the National Coalition as a condition for international recognition has little means to establish authority in rebel ranks – and therefore much diminished ability to attract either regime defectors or fighters that now flock to the black banners of the jihadis.
And yet the administration has done nothing more than supply humanitarian aid and call for Assad to go. Ask the Tutsis, the Bosnian Muslims, the Cambodians how that will turn out. This morning I read of another massacre: 72 men shot in the back of the head with their hands tied behind their backs. There are reports of mass rape, cities are being shelled; children are being killed; civilians are being tortured and maimed. This is not a civil war; it’s a bloodbath. It could become worse, if Assad decides to use his chemical weapons. The conflict is already de-stabilizing the region; which was the main reason that Clinton began the pre-emptive aerial campaign in Kosovo. After the war in Bosnia, Representative McCloskey declared,
Bosnian Serb terrorist leaders were quoted in the New York Times as saying they renewed their bloody attacks because they knew after American fiascos in Haiti and Somalia the Clinton administration would not respond. They were right.
Let’s not let that be the post-mortem of Syria.
Sean A. McElwee graduated from The King’s College with a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics in 2013. He lives in Connecticut and his pieces have been published in The Day and The Norwich Bulletin and on WashingtonMonthly.com and Reason.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org