Arming the FSA in Syria

Could arming the FSA work?

A relatively large debate has been launched over whether the west should be providing arms to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) after Dan Drezner and Marc Lynch  published pieces arguing the point. Drezner, who supports the move (in addition to John McCain and Elliott Abrams – no surprise there,) points to the fact that Syria is already in a civil war and notes that the point of the western action should be political – i.e. to overthrow Assad. There are number of reasons why arming the FSA is a terrible idea. i have covered this possibility twice already, so there is little original insight that I have here. Fortunately,  there are plenty of others who see such a policy as foolish.

Greg Scoblete, over at The Compass at RealClearWorld, openly admits that he has no idea what the right path in Syria should be, but nonetheless falls squarely against the provision of arms:

There is absolutely no reason to believe that Syria’s rebel forces will be any less brutal than the regime they are seeking to overthrow. There is no way to know how they will govern (and there is obviously no reason to trust declarations made explicitly to court foreign assistance). Nor is there any way U.S. or NATO assistance can ensure a democratic outcome. The U.S. couldn’t steer Iraqi politics to its liking while it was an occupying power – it would have even less leverage in a post-Assad Syria.

Of course, fear over the next government is not enough to avoid action. It is, however, only one argument against the arming the FSA. In his article mentioned above, Lynch notes that the FSA is probably best characterized by disunity and divisions, a characteristic that will likely be exacerbated by the influx of weapons. Moreover, per Lynch:

Third, what will the weapons be intended to achieve? I can see at least three answers. Perhaps they’ll be meant to be purely defensive, to stop the regime’s onslaught and protect civilians. But this relatively passive goal does not seem a likely stable endpoint once the weapons start flooding in. A second possibility is that they’ll be meant to give the rebels the power to defeat the regime on the battlefield and overthrow it. But that does not seem realistic, since it would require far more fire power than would likely be on offer to reverse the immense imbalance in favor of regime forces. A third possibility is that they’ll be meant to even the balance of power sufficiently to force Assad to the bargaining table once he realizes that he can’t win. But the violence of the escalating civil war will make such talks very difficult politically. The provision of arms probably won’t be intended to create a protracted, militarized stalemate — but that does seem the most likely outcome. Is that the goal we hope to achieve?

Fourth, how will Assad and his allies respond to the arming of the opposition? Perhaps they will immediately realize their imminent defeat and rush to make amends. But more likely, they will take this as license to escalate their attacks, to deploy an ever greater arsenal, and to discard whatever restraint they have thus far shown in order to stay below the threshold of international action. It would also be very difficult to stop Russia, Iran, or anyone else from supplying fresh arms and aid to Assad once the opposition’s backers are openly doing so. Providing arms to a relatively weak opposition will not necessarily close the military gap, then — it might simply push the same gap up to a higher level of militarized conflict.

Fifth, what will we do when the provision of weapons fails to solve the conflict? Arming the opposition is held out as an alternative to direct military intervention. When it fails to solve the crisis relatively quickly — and it most likely will fail — there will inevitably then be new calls to escalate Western military support to airstrikes in the Libya-style. In other words, what is presented as an alternative to military intervention is more likely to pave the way to such intervention once it fails.

In his response to Drezner, Daniel Larison writes that the arming of the FSA will simply increase regime violence against civilians in order to bring about the collapse of the regime. As I wrote yesterday, this policy would likely lead to a prolonged civil war in which the militarily superior Syrian army (even after military aid to the opposition) would be more able to release its full might on the Syrian people. While it is difficult to imagine violence getting worse, there is every indication that the Syrian government has not yet ‘gone all in.’

Meanwhile, Andrew Exum looks at some basic figures to point out that arming the FSA would certainly help in a guerrilla-style civil war, it would do little to quickly bring down the regime. Arming the FSA, in other words, would still leave it overwhelmed by the military might of the government:

 Did Drezner or anyone else consult an actual order of battle before talking about “evening the odds?” According to the 2011 Military Balance, Syria has:

  1. 4,950 main battle tanks.
  2. 2,450 BMPs.
  3. 1,500 more armored personnel carriers.
  4. 3,440+ pieces of artillery.
  5. 600,000 men under arms in the active and reserve forces.

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s say Syria can only field half of the above equipment and personnel due to maintenance issues and defections or whatever. We’re still talking about a ridiculous amount of advanced weaponry. What arms, then, are we talking about giving these guerrilla groups? Nukes?

The balance in Libya was only tipped when NATO warplanes began “enforcing the no-fly zone” by destroying Libyan tanks and armored personnel carriers. (I know those things don’t actually fly, but the only way you can be really sure they won’t grow wings is by dropping a GBU-31 on top of them.) If a scheme to train and equip the Syrians is not matched with a similar effort to degrade the capabilities of the Syrian army, I fail to see how arming the rebel groups will even any odds.

That doesn’t mean the rebels don’t stand a chance — they can always carry out a guerrlla campaign using raids, ambushes and IEDs. But it does mean that schemes to train and equip the rebel groups will be more about doing something that makes us feel better about ourselves rather than an act that seriously changes the game in Syria.

Moreover, Larison, in a second post, notes that arming the opposition could quite possibly alienate a major number of Syrians:

James Traub cites a remarkable piece of evidence about Syrian public opinion:

‘A poll conducted by the Doha Debates in mid-December found that 55 percent of Syrians wanted Assad to remain in power.’

Let’s suppose that there is not as much support for Assad remaining in power now as there was two months ago. Maybe there is a narrow Syrian majority for removing Assad at this point. Even if that were true, it would still mean that the country is evenly split in half. Pushing for Assad’s removal may sound good, but it is a solution that half of the population does not want.

Certainly, support for the regime has decreased tremendously since the poll was conducted, but it still points to a significant percentage of Syrians who would prefer to keep Assad. Should the west arm the FSA, and should the FSA overthrow Assad, there will be many Syrians who would be both against the new government and also open to reprisal attacks, thus further complicating what is certain to be a devastatingly complex situation. [Edit: Brian Whitaker shows that the poll cited above is pretty useless – 97 Syrians of 20 million participated. I would still be inclined to believe that there are sections of the population that support Assad – particularly Alawites – due to religious solidarity or fear of reprisals.]

Drezner himself talks about the major pitfalls involved in arming the FSA, but maintains that its is one of two viable options (the other being negotiation with Assad.) However, in his defense of the option, Drezner relies on the fact that: a) the Syrian population wants regime change and b) most palatable options are exhausted. As we saw above, many Syrians do want regime change, but many don’t. More importantly, wanting regime change and wanting peace are very different. If I were to bet, I would say that most Syrians would rather keep Assad and stop the killing. Arming the FSA would prolong and exacerbate the violence.

Despite the myriad reasons why arming the FSA is a bad idea and could potentially backfire, I can easily see the powers that be taking this route. This seems to be the kind of decision that is made under pressure to do something, anything, regardless of the consequences. Like Scoblete, I really have no idea what the best option would be. (Hence, I blog for free and am not properly compensated for my rants.)  However, of Drezner’s two viable options, negotiation with the Syrian government is a far better option. Though negotiations would undoubtedly be complicated by the rhetoric of the west in the last few months, it would end the killing quicker – which, I suppose, is what Syrians really want – and would avoid all of the many complications that would arise from a rash policy.

Photo from American Everyman

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