The growing humanitarian crisis in Syria has prompted a new chorus of pleas for the United States to begin supplying Syrian rebel forces with weapons. Various US foreign policy experts, including Senator John McCain, Senator Lindsey Graham, and architect of the 2003 Iraq War Paul Wolfowitz, are vocally advocating weapon shipments to precipitate the overthrow of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
Recent developments such as the McCain visit to Syria and the end of the EU arms embargo have increased pressure on the Obama administration to change its position, and it appears that a subtle shift might have already taken place. Several Obama administration officials have recently granted interviews and spoken out in support of weapon shipments in the opinion columns of The New York Times and The Washington Post. Some compare Syria’s problems to its eastern neighbor, Iraq, arguing that a surge of weapons would shift the balance to the rebel side.
Syria is arguably more geopolitically important than Iraq. Since the list’s inception in 1979, Syria has been categorized by the US Department of State as a state sponsor of terrorism. Although most of this support has been categorized as passive, Damascus has a track record of supporting assassinations in Lebanon, including that of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and Lebanese Brig. General Wissam al-Hassan. Before the civil war, Damascus served as the headquarters for leading Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas, PIJ, and PFLP-GC. The region’s largest non-state actor, Hezbollah, has also enjoyed a close partnership with Syria. Even in the midst of a civil war, Syria still serves as a conduit for arms shipments from Iran to Hezbollah, as recent Israeli airstrikes have suggested. These separate and fractured opposition movements help comprise the over 1,000 anti-government groups have been fighting Syrian government troops. Alarmingly, more and more of these groups are becoming radicalized, posing a potential risk in a post-Assad Syria.
Syria has many sectarian cleavages. Like pre-2003 Iraq, the country is controlled by a minority group- the Alawites. Home to eleven secret police intelligence services, the goal of these services since Hafez al-Assad’s time in power has been to separate, manipulate, and destroy the voice of those not aligned with the regime’s political interest. Jostling for power and the attention of the president, these services ruthlessly round up bloggers who are critical of the regime and recently assassinated a rival intelligence chief via the use of their proxy, Hezbollah. In 1982 with the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in full-swing, then-president Hafez al-Assad besieged the city of Hama for 27 days and ultimately massacred between 10-40,000 Sunni citizens. Today, pro-government militias called ‘shabiha’ roam Alawite cities killing rebel supporters and Sunni Muslims. Equally disturbing, Syrian rebels have published videos of vicious beheadings of shabiha and Alawite supporters.
It is thus not entirely surprising that the leading opposition governing body outside of Syria, the US-recognized Syrian National Coalition, is effectively paralyzed by sectarian cleavages and power disagreements.
The conflict in Syria is very complex. Rival opposition groups, Sunni, Kurds, etc., are jostling for power within revolving alliances. The future is very uncertain with no opposition political power-sharing arrangements in place inside or outside the country for a post-Assad Syria. A very real concern is the growing extremism among the opposition groups in Syria. According to Gen Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the overarching US concern is accurately identifying moderate members of the Syrian resistance.
If the US choses to go forward with arming the Syrian rebels, it cannot count on support from Syria’s neighbors. Lebanon (80%), Turkey (68%), Tunisia (60%) and Egypt (59%), all overwhelmingly oppose the US or Europe supplying Syrian rebels with weapons. Only Jordan (53%), struggling to deal with its own influx of over half a million Syrian refugees, supports the idea of US weapon shipments.
Daniel Moore is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com