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Region | Opinion: Efforts to Arm Syrian Opposition Will Only Worsen Crisis


17 Mar 2012 03:47Comments
26SANGER-articleLarge.jpgWeapons would almost surely fall into the wrong hands.

[ opinion ] Small and light weapons have always managed to find their way into Syria through smugglers, and this continues today. But the Obama administration is right to keep putting the brakes on calls to openly arm the rebels there.

This leaves two main advocates for supplying arms -- Israel and Saudi Arabia. Strange bedfellows? Yes. But they have the same agenda, and it is not so much to promote democracy in Syria. Rather, it is to neutralize Iran.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama repeated his stance against arming Syrian rebels, cautioning against knee-jerk reactions to reports of the conflict. "When we see what's happening on television, you know, our natural instinct is to act," Obama said at a news conference in the Rose Garden.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had already delivered a similar message to an international audience at the Arab League's "Friends of Syria" conference, held last month in Tunisia.

Instead of arming rebels in Syria, she suggested, why not urge the Syrian security forces to put down their weapons? "Their continuing to kill their brothers and sisters is a stain on their honor," Clinton said. "Their refusal to continue this slaughter will make them heroes in the eyes of not only Syrians but people of conscience everywhere. They can help the guns fall silent."

The Syrian security apparatus, however, continues to kill civilians. The notion that the Syrian army might resemble its Egyptian counterpart in Tahrir Square and aim to protect civilians rather than shoot at them has thus far proven to be wishful thinking.

But this does not mean that sending arms to Syria will help save lives. Those known to agree include Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, and top American military brass.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently defended his stance before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "What doesn't make sense is to take unilateral action right now," he said.

Even the Republicans are generally against it. House Speaker John Boehner insisted recently that the situation is too muddled, and U.S. military involvement would be premature. No one in Congress seems able to answer the question of who, exactly, might end up with any weapons the United States sent to Syria. And no one seems to think that the American public might support military involvement anywhere in the world today, when they are so fatigued by the barrage of bad news coming from the Afghan front.

No one, that is, except three Republican senators who also happen to be among the staunchest supporters of Israel's hawks. They are John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman, and they have been relentless in calling for arms.

"The Assad regime is Iran's main ally.... It is a threat to Israel," wrote McCain this week in a USA Today op-ed aimed at trumping up support for military involvement in Syria.

McCain's war drums play nicely alongside those of Israel's hawks, who might be too bashful to publicly call for bombing Syria, but are outspoken about bombing Iran over a perceived nuclear threat. From their perspective, undermining the Assad regime would curb Iran's influence in the region, even if it hurls Syria deeper into an intractable civil war.

Then there is Saudi Arabia, the other vocal proponent of sending weapons into Syria. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal argued at the conference in Tunisia last month that arming the Syrian opposition was "an excellent idea." When it was clear the consensus weighed in favor of sending humanitarian aid rather than arms, he walked out in protest.

"Is it justice to offer aid and leave the Syrians to the killing machine?" he later said.

Ironically, it was something of a Saudi "killing machine" that helped squash a similarly popular insurgency by the Shia majority in Bahrain against the tiny island's Sunni ruling family. Saudi Arabia promptly rolled its tanks across the bridge to Bahrain as a show of support for its king. Shortly thereafter, horrific reports emerged of violence and reprisals against protesters, as well as against Bahraini medical personnel who helped injured demonstrators. And although the situation in Bahrain never escalated to what is now unfolding in Syria, the stories of unlawful detention, torture, and death are eerily similar.

Saudi Arabia has a dismal human rights record internally, too. It still puts people to death by public beheading for "sorcery," and recently there was talk of punishing burqa-clad women for having "enticing eyes."

Saudi Arabia does not champion the human rights and democratic ideals that so many Syrian grassroots opposition members are fighting and dying for. But, like Israel, Saudi is obsessed with neutralizing Iran, which the Saudi king famously called "the head of the snake" in secret diplomatic cables revealed by WikiLeaks.

Iran and Saudi are arch foes, and have been in a cold war of their own for decades. They compete to expand their religious influence in the region. Saudi Arabia, which brutally suppresses its own tiny Shia minority, adheres to the ultra-conservative Wahhabi school of jurisprudence in the Sunni tradition. It views the Persian Shia state with contempt, and Iran thinks no better of Saudi Arabia.

Both try to bolster support by financing mosques and religious institutions around the region wherever they can. Iran has had an easier time doing so in Syria by virtue of the friendly regime of President Bashar al-Assad, who hails from a Shia sect. Syria also has several tombs and pilgrimage sites that are sacred to Shiites.

By contrast, the Assad regime has shunned Saudi money and thwarted the kingdom's efforts to exert influence over Sunni institutions in Syria. Perhaps, the Saudis may well reason, the long outlawed Muslim Brotherhood could take hold in a post-Assad Syria much like it did in Egypt. The Brotherhood's take on Sunni traditions is much less fundamentalist than Wahhabism, but it would nonetheless be friendly to Riyadh and prickly toward Tehran.

From the Saudi perspective, undermining the Assad regime now is a golden opportunity to tip the balance against Iran.

So what does the Syrian opposition think about all of this? Its supporters are very divided, but it seems that more and more of them on the ground in Syria are calling for arms to help defend themselves against relentless government reprisals. The exile-based Syrian National Council, often dismissed as unrepresentative of the grassroots opposition in the homeland, announced last month the launch of a "military bureau" that will liaise with parties seeking to send arms to Syria.

"We know that some countries have expressed a desire to arm the revolutionaries," said SNC Chief Burhan Ghalioun. "The SNC will be this link between those who want to help and the revolutionaries."

While there will now be more money available to facilitate the smuggling of light arms across Syria's porous borders, without explicit U.S. support the flow of weapons is still unlikely to grow to substantial levels.

Many Syrians, my distant relatives included, have already suffered unspeakable violence at the hands of men armed with knives or handguns, whether regime henchmen wreaking havoc on the population or criminal gangs that kidnap for ransom.

Making more weapons available to Syria means making weapons more accessible to such elements and will surely add fuel to the fire. It is the moral responsibility of the United States not to become involved in heavily arming anyone in Syria, and to focus instead on a diplomatic and humanitarian solution. Likewise, the countries that are obsessed with neutralizing Iran bear a moral responsibility not to cause more bloodshed in Syria simply to advance their own regional agendas.

The views expressed are the author's own.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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