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Opinion

Conventional – not chemical – weapons are the real problem in Syria

Sen. John McCain has slammed Russia's President Putin. But all sides are guilty in perpetuating the conflict in Syria. Chemical weapons are repugnant, but the more urgent need is to tamp down on the flow of conventional weapons from all sides, which is fueling Syria's civil war.

By Yousaf ButtOp-ed contributor / September 19, 2013

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona (left) and Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, walk to a closed-door briefing on Syria with Secretary of State John Kerry, at the Capitol Sept. 17. Op-ed contributor Yousaf Butt writes: 'The more Syria is flooded with small arms, the more intractable any political settlement becomes.'

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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The despicable use of chemical nerve agents to kill hundreds of people in Syria – including many children – has captured the attention of the civilized world. But for every victim of the chemical weapons attacks, about a thousand others have died by conventional weapons.

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The recent international interest in securing and disposing of Syria's chemical agent stockpiles should be extended to stifling the flow of the far deadlier – but more prosaic – conventional arms to the region. The more Syria is flooded with small arms, the more intractable any political settlement becomes.

The proxy war taking place in Syria is dangerously reminiscent of 1980s Afghanistan – but the potential for spillover into neighboring countries is even greater now.

Regular arms may be less frightening than lethal chemical agents but they have been weapons of far more massive destruction – and are a bigger impediment to peace.

Light weapons, such as Kalashnikov rifles and rocket propelled grenades have already been pouring into Syria for months, mostly coordinated by a US-Saudi-Qatari triumvirate with conflicting agendas. The Gulf Arab countries have also been sending more potent weapons, like anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, but are limiting such transfers lest they fall into the hands of rebel units allied to Al Qaeda.

Similarly, Russia, Iran, and Belarus have been playing a counterproductive role by funneling weapons to the Syrian regime. 

As long as the flow of arms – to either side – is secure, a political settlement will not likely be in the cards. In fact, the only way a political settlement becomes appealing to all involved is when the sides finally begin to lose hope on the battlefield. Hope, in the form of a flood of arms, effectively keeps the players from the negotiating table.

As Mike Morell, former deputy director of the CIA said recently, “enough support has to be provided to the opposition – to put enough pressure on Assad – to bring him to the negotiating table, but not enough support provided to the opposition so that they feel that they don’t need to go to the negotiating table. It’s a very difficult balance to strike.”

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