From every direction, arms for Syria

France is pushing hard, it seems, for Western powers to arm Syria's rebellion. If they get their way, they'll be joining an already crowded playing field.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP/File
Syrian rebels attend a training session in Maaret Ikhwan, near Idlib, Syria, Dec. 2012.

The United Nations said today that more than 5 million Syrians – about 20 percent of its population – have been left reliant on aid handouts by the ferocious civil war that has raged there for two years now.

A glance at today's headlines gives good reason to expect the number of Syrians driven from their homes to bulge – they highlight the prospect of more arms flowing into a conflict that has already claimed 70,000 lives and driven more than 1 million refugees into neighboring countries. 

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already arming the rebellion, and Iran and its partner Hezbollah in Lebanon have been sending arms and men to fight alongside President Bashar al-Assad's troops. Now Britain and France want to open the door to direct arming of the rebels themselves. Yesterday, the two countries said they want to lift immediately a European Union embargo on arming the rebels, set to expire on May 31. 

"We have to go very fast," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said, indicating France may act even if it doesn't get an EU green light. "We are a sovereign nation," he emphasized.

The UK doesn't appear to be quite as gung-ho as France, but still seems to be inching close to much stronger intervention in Syria's war. "We have no plans at the moment to do anything different," Foreign Secretary William Hague said in London today.

But he also didn't fully distance himself from the French position, adding, "I have said of course that that policy may need to change again in the future if the situation continues to get worse, more people dying, more people fleeing, but we have no plans at the moment, the British government has no plans to send lethal arms, lethal equipment to Syria."

The one constant of this war has been more people dying and more people fleeing, so Mr. Hague appears to be laying the public ground for a shift. The UN refugee agency said registered Syrians who had fled their country surged to 121,000 last week, 10 percent of the running total of 1 million refugees generated in the past two years. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres called the increases a "staggering escalation." He said the daily flow of refugees more than doubled from December to February – from 3,000 a day to 8,000. 

This is tragic, but hardly surprising. December is when it first became clear that the rebels had tapped into a new arms supply, since confirmed to be supplied by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, mostly via Jordan. As a result, rebels have made gains in a number areas, but has also intensified fighting that has reduced whole blocks of cities like Homs and Aleppo to rubble. The Syrian government has responded with an even greater willingness to target civilian residential neighborhoods with stand off weapons like mortars, rockets and cluster bombs.

Amnesty International wrote yesterday:

Research carried out inside Syria in the last fortnight confirms that government forces continue to bomb civilians indiscriminately, often with internationally banned weapons, flattening entire neighborhoods. Detainees held by these forces are routinely subjected to torture, enforced disappearances or extra-judicial executions

“While the vast majority of war crimes and other gross violations continue to be committed by government forces, our research also points to an escalation in abuses by armed opposition groups,” said Ann Harrison, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme. “If left unaddressed such practices risk becoming more and more entrenched - it is imperative that all those concerned know they will be held accountable for their actions.”

So, will even more arms for the rebels make a difference? While US Secretary of State John Kerry said on a visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this month that the US hopes arms flows to the rebels will force Assad to the negotiating table, so far they have only bolstered the resolve of the rebellion while doing nothing to take away from the commitment of Assad's troops, many of whom belong to his minority Alawite sect and view victory in this war as a question of survival.

The sectarian dimension, both locally and internationally, looms ever larger. Syria is already in many ways a hot proxy war in Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia's long tussle for regional power and influence. Iraq, which has a Shiite-led government but an angry Sunni minority, is providing aid to both Assad via official channels and to the rebels via Sunni militants who see victory for Syria's rebellion as a potential gamechanger for their own prospects inside Iraq.

With all this activity comes the possibility of blowback for international actors. Secretary Kerry has said the US is convinced that current arms flows are going only to nationalist groups, rather than to the jihadi-inspired organizations like Jabhat al-Nusra, which have been at the forefront of some of Syria's bloodiest recent rebels, but the historic track record of making sure only the "good guys" end up with the weapons is not very promising.

Consider the US and Saudi effort to arm the mujahideen who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. While the US tried to avoid arming what it viewed as the most extreme and anti-American groups fighting the Soviets, the Saudis had far fewer qualms about this. In any event, following the Soviet withdrawal, the weapons that ended up in the hands of what became the Taliban enabled them to win their own civil war, at an enormous cost that country is still counting today. 

Syria is not Afghanistan. A different place, a different culture, a different time. But there are at least superficial similarities. The Global Post reported on Wednesday that "hundreds of young Saudis are secretly making their way into Syria to join extremist groups fighting against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad... over a dozen sources have confirmed that wealthy Saudis, as well as the government, are arming some Syrian rebel groups. Saudi and Syrian sources confirm that hundreds of Saudis are joining the rebels, but the government denies any sponsoring role."

Sound familiar? It should. Saudi fighters flowed to the Afghan jihad too, and were the vanguard of what became Al Qaeda. Back then, the House of Saud didn't consider the dangers of blowback. They may be making the same mistake again.

Meanwhile, US involvement continues apace, and is making for strange bedfellows. The Wall Street Journal had an interesting story this week about the CIA stepping up training and equipping efforts for Iraqi anti-terrorism units that answer directly to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"The stepped-up mission expands a covert US presence on the edges of the two-year-old Syrian conflict, at a time of American concerns about the growing power of extremists in the Syrian rebellion," WSJ wrote. "Al Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist network's affiliate in the country, has close ties to Syria-based Jabhat al Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, an opposition militant group that has attacked government installations and controls territory in northern Syria. The State Department placed Al Nusra on its list of foreign terror organizations in December, calling the group an alias for Al Qaeda in Iraq."

The concerns are obvious. But units that answer directly to Mr. Maliki have frequently been accused of torture and execution, with their efforts largely targeted at Iraq's Sunni Arabs. And Iraq's goal in this is to stem the flow of support and fighters to Syria's rebellion – a rebellion the US says it would like to see succeed, even as Iraq helps Iran arm Bashar al-Assad.

This all seems likely to grow more, not less, complex. While the outcome remains difficult to predict, the near-term future seems to promise more suffering for Syria's people.

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