As onlookers gaze in horror at the civil war raging in Syria, many naturally feel a compulsion to do something to relieve the people’s suffering. Many have called for arming the Syrian rebels – a move President Obama is now reportedly considering as Bashar al-Assad’s forces are apparently poised to attack the key city of Homs. But such a step would worsen the devastation and might involve the United States in yet another Middle East war. A better way to help the Syrian people is to pursue diplomatic efforts to end the killing and provide greater support for humanitarian relief efforts.
Giving military aid to the rebels will only add fuel to the fire, prolonging the war, producing more death and destruction, and increasing the risk of sectarian conflagration in the region. The rebel cause is just – to overthrow the murderous Assad regime – but the hard reality is that after two years of fighting, insurgent forces have been unable to defeat government troops, and lately have lost ground militarily, most recently with the fall of the city of Qusayr in central Homs province. Mr. Assad’s Army remains strong, despite some defections, and has been bolstered by aid from Iran and Hezbollah and promised missile shipments from Russia.
Sending weapons and military aid might help the rebels, but they are already receiving assistance from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. US support will not solve the problem of rebel disunity and the lack of effective command. Many of the fighting groups are more loyal to local militia leaders than to the Free Syrian Army. In some localities warlords hold sway and refuse to submit to external authority.
Providing weapons to the rebels also means giving military support to insurgent forces that include elements allied to Al Qaeda. We are assured that US aid would go only to moderate groups, but controlling the use of weapons is impossible in the midst of the large-scale bitter war raging in Syria. Islamist groups such as the al-Nusra Front increasingly dominate the insurgency and would likely gain control of any weapons we send. US military aid could end up arming Al Qaeda.
What if American arms assistance were to somehow help the rebels turn the tide in their favor? More Hezbollah troops would probably enter the fray on the side of the Assad government, and their paymasters in Tehran might also intervene more directly. This would escalate and expand the conflict. The Sunni majority Syrian rebels would face a Shiite-backed (Hezbollah, Iran) Assad regime, intensifying a regional Shiite-Sunni divide already tearing apart Lebanon and Iraq. This conflict would sunder the entire region and further devastate Syria.
With US involvement growing and escalation likely, pressure would build for stronger action. A no-fly zone? Drone strikes against Syrian tanks and artillery? Boots on the ground? The US might find itself dragged into another even more dangerous Middle East war.
Rather than pursuing uncertain and dangerous military solutions, the US should use its influence to continue to press for a diplomatic settlement. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov announced recently in Moscow the convening of a conference in Geneva to end the fighting and begin negotiations for a transitional government. UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi welcomed last week’s communiqué as “the first hopeful news concerning that unhappy country in a very long time."
The Syrian government has said it will attend the conference, but the now militarily weakened rebels are balking and say they will not participate without weapons and ammunition from the West. The Obama administration is using the prospect of military assistance for the rebels as leverage to gain Russian and Syrian government support for the talks, and as an inducement for the rebels to participate.
It’s a delicate balancing act that will require Mr. Kerry to pressure the Syrian government into allowing an open transition process and the rebels into pursuing their goals through political and diplomatic means rather than armed struggle.
Syria’s most urgent need is for humanitarian assistance. The UN on Friday issued the largest humanitarian appeal in its history, requesting more than $5 billion this year to care for the more than 1.6 million refugees who have fled the country, with 200,000 more leaving every month, and for the millions more displaced within Syria. Emergency help is needed for food, medical assistance, sanitation, shelter, and schooling for children. The World Health Organization expressed concern last week about possible outbreaks of several preventable diseases.
The Obama administration deserves credit for launching a diplomatic process to try to end the war in Syria. The administration should also pledge greater American support for providing desperately needed humanitarian assistance for the war’s civilian victims. Sending aid rather than weapons and continuing to pursue a diplomatic solution offer the best options for helping the Syrian people.
David Cortright is the director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.