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.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
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.'

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.

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.”

Micromanaging such a stalemate is not only difficult and dangerous but also morally bankrupt since it means extending the civil war indefinitely with the deaths of many thousands of civilians. And, as America saw with its support of the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, today's “good rebels” can become tomorrow's nemesis.

Ironically, President Obama's decision to shelve, for now, a muscular response to the recent chemical weapons use will likely lead the Saudis, Qataris, and other Sunni Gulf Arab monarchies to continue – if not bolster – their supply of conventional arms to the Syrian rebels.

Further clouding the picture is the fact that Washington is reportedly more concerned with pitting the secular rebels under the umbrella “Supreme Military Council” against the Al Qaeda-backed rebels, rather than against the Assad regime.  

As the Al Qaeda-backed rebels – both Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – are known to be the most vicious opponents of the Assad regime, arms supplied to bolster the secular rebels could be helping Assad get rid of his most hardened enemies. Inter-rebel fighting is now well documented. But a greater fear should be that the flood of light arms could eventually end up in the hands of these Al Qaeda rebels, and spread throughout the region as in the aftermath of the Libyan war.

The professed goal of almost all outside players involved in the Syrian civil war is a political settlement. But a political settlement does not mean a political settlement they will all like. At this point, Syria’s future could involve a choice between medieval salafi-jihadists and a ruthless authoritarian dictator. In fact, the sure sign of a successfully negotiated political settlement is that no one party is likely to be entirely happy.

If the choice ends up being between Al Qaeda and al-Assad, most people – including the Israelis – seem to favor the stability of the dictator rather than a takeover by the jihadists.

Although chemical weapons are morally repugnant, they should not distract from the more urgent need to tamp down on small arms supplies to the region from all sides, which is what is fueling and prolonging the Syrian civil war.

The only way to solve the Syrian civil war politically is to starve it of the oxygen of boring conventional light armaments.

Dr. Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, is director of the Emerging Technologies Program at the Cultural Intelligence Institute, a non-profit headquartered in MacLean, Va., dedicated to promoting fact-based cultural awareness among individuals, institutions, and governments. The views expressed here are his own.

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