The civil war in Syria is a nightmare. The bloodshed is so great that practically the entire foreign policy establishment in the U.S. and Europe are wringing their hands about what to do. There is, however, something of a consensus among these experts that the West has an obligation to help.
What then is the nature of that obligation? The answer isn’t nearly as simple as it might seem. In the rush to do something – anything – to end the horrific violence in Syria, it is important to keep a level head about making sure Western efforts will lead to a less violent, less fractured outcome.
An obligation to help end the conflict does not automatically imply an obligation to provide weapons to Syria’s rebels. Yet, this is precisely the stance that some arming advocates like Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor at Princeton and former State Department official, and Bartle Breese Bull, the foreign editor of Prospect magazine have taken. Indeed, many believe that arming the rebels is the most effective course to ensure there is an end in sight to the ongoing brutality.
The International Crisis Group, however, offers a much more sober assessment of what to expect from an armed, post-Assad Syria.
…from a military standpoint, it is becoming clearer by the day that the outcome will be much messier than either party to the conflict once hoped. The regime will not succeed in suppressing the armed groups; if anything, its ruthless practices have guaranteed a virtually limitless pool of recruits prepared to fight with the opposition at any cost.
This means that even if the regime were to collapse overnight in a rebel victory, it would not eliminate the possibility of violent resistance by pro-regime Syrians. Furthermore, ICG also suggests that the worrying trend of reprisal violence by rebel groups will only make this worse over time.
Arming the rebels, then, presents moral compromises many American policymakers seem unwilling to consider. Are there other ways of assisting with the removal of the Assad regime in a responsible way? Dalia Dassa Kaye and David Kaye suggest that the U.S. focus on supporting the development of Syria’s non-Assad institutions:
American influence flows not only from our weapons but from the concrete assistance we can provide after the uprising, such as security sector reform, humanitarian and economic assistance, and technical and legal training. Being a partisan to the conflict through military support — causing us to be seen, for instance, as an opponent of key “losing” ethnic groups — would make such assistance less effective.
Unfortunately, in many local conflicts where the U.S. (and to a lesser extent Europe) has intervened, the picking of winners and losers – even if it’s just picking the regime opposition – has not necessarily led to a cessation of violence or stable political order. Even in Kosovo, normally highlighted as an example of successful intervention, it is only the 13-year occupation by thousands of US and NATO troops of the border regions near Serbia that keep a lid on the violence. Moreover, the Kosovar rebels who America so eagerly armed and supported committed shocking atrocities against Serbian civilians – atrocities the U.S. has some moral culpability for.
While opposing the Assad regime is unquestionably the moral stance to take, supporting the Syrian rebels militarily is not the best way for America to end the bloodshed.
Political engagement offers the strongest long-term strategy for a post-Assad Syria. Though intelligence agencies struggle to identify and understand all of the various disjointed rebel factions, Hillary Clinton’s push to expand American ties with the rebel groups is a vital step.
Just as importantly, the U.S. should also expand its engagement with the Allawite forces who are brutally killing civilians. Political engagement in Syria must not favor once side. Furthermore, the safety of low-ranking regime fighters and officials needs to be guaranteed so that the prospects of post-Assad fighting are minimized.
By engaging with both sides of the Syrian conflict, the U.S. and Europe stand a chance of reducing the prospects for long-term fighting and can possibly create the initial stages of a post-Assad government not consumed by insurgency and reprisals. Simply arming Syria’s rebels won’t accomplish the political ends needed to lessen the suffering.