Why US must give military aid to Syria's rebels

The war in Syria is at a turning point. Backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah militants, Bashar al-Assad has the upper hand. Ending the war requires backing him into a corner from which peace talks provide his only safe escape. US military aid for the rebels can help do that.

Syrian news agency SANA/AP
Syrian Army troops walk in the town of Qusair in Homs Province, Syria, June 5. The Syrian Army triumphantly announced the capture of the town from rebels Wednesday. Op-ed contributor Kurt Shillinger writes: '[A] UN panel urged the international community to cut all arms flows to Syria. But stemming the humanitarian crisis in Syria requires that the West do just the opposite.'

There are two ways the war in Syria could end: Either through outright victory or a negotiated transition.

Outright victory on the battlefield tends to produce more durable peace – think the American Civil War and World War II – but few modern wars end this way. And in Syria, a drubbing of either side may not produce a lasting silence. If the regime survives, it could face a fragmented low-level insurgency for years. If it falls, the rebellion’s splintered factions may turn on each other.

A negotiated peace, meanwhile, requires two essential preconditions: military stalemate and inclusiveness at the peace table. Warring factions do not leave their bunkers for conference rooms as long as they think they have more to gain in the trenches. Talks that favor certain factions by dint of excluding others lack legitimacy.

The necessary preconditions for peace talks do not yet exist, and so the United States and the West must work to create them – through military intervention in this crisis.

A United Nations investigating commission said Tuesday it had found credible evidence in Syria of the use of both chemical and thermobaric weapons (the latter produces a much longer blast wave than a conventional explosion). The commission cited 17 apparent massacres of civilians between January and mid-May, and warned that “war crimes, crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations continue apace.” It cited war crimes by both sides. The UN estimates that 80,000 people – mostly civilians – have perished in the conflict, which is now in its third year.

The UN report came as the US and its European allies debate arming the rebellion, and as Washington works with Moscow, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s principle patron, on a formula for peace talks. The UN panel urged the international community to cut all arms flows to Syria.

But stemming the humanitarian crisis in Syria requires that the West do just the opposite.

Assad has been emboldened by recent advances on the battlefield and by support from Russia, Iran, and the Lebanese faction Hezbollah. A delivery of Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles remained pending.  The regime vaguely claimed that the shipment has arrived, but Moscow denies the weapons were sent.

The rebels, meanwhile, are in disarray and, on the battlefield, retreating. The main rebel faction, the Syrian National Coalition, has rejected Washington’s invitation to set the table for talks. It has good reason to do so.

First, the rebels understand that Mr. Assad has no incentive to negotiate his own exit as long as he holds – or at least thinks he holds – a military advantage. Second, the coalition, a movement largely in exile, does not carry a unified brief for the wider, fragmented rebellion.

Third, the rebellion has no reason to trust its hesitant would-be Western patrons. The European Union lifted its arms embargo only late last month, but key members – Britain and France – remain undecided on whether to send military assistance. Washington is even more wary of entering the fray in yet another Middle Eastern war – despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent admission that US foot-dragging has been a mistake.

The war is at a turning point. Backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah militants fighting inside Syria, the Assad regime has reason to be confident. The opposition is demoralized and ill-equipped, providing fertile ground for jihadist opportunists. Meanwhile the war is spilling into the broader region.

Ending the war and its crushing humanitarian crisis requires backing Assad into a corner from which the negotiating table provides his only safe escape. Yes, dropping more firepower into a volatile region is dangerous, increases the death toll, and runs the risk of placing arms in the hands of anti-Western extremists.

But arming the rebels addresses several objectives: It shifts the strategic balance of the war against the regime; it unifies the splintered rebellion; and it strengthens the West’s diplomatic stand vis-à-vis Russia and Iran. All of that would also work to bring rebels to the negotiating table.

Providing materiel should be one part of a larger effort involving the West’s friends in the region. Supply-corridors starting from Turkey and Jordan and protected by NATO air power – no-fly zones – would facilitate a humanitarian response to war-pummeled cities and villages and enable well-armed rebels to advance more assuredly on the regime’s vital strongholds in Aleppo and Damascus.

The goal is to compel peace negotiations. The Obama administration’s bid for talks has exposed the cost of the West’s dithering in Syria. Assad and his patrons see more advantage on the battlefield. The rebellion is fragmented. The West has little leverage. Preparing the conditions for peace begins not in Geneva, where American and Russian diplomats talk about talks, but on the battlefield in Syria.

Kurt Shillinger was a national political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor and Africa correspondent for The Boston Globe. He conducted political research in Syria in the mid-2000s.

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