To Arm or Not to Arm

5 Jun 2013

On the 27th of May the European Union, under pressure from the U.K. and France, decided to take no further action in preventing arms reaching the Syrian rebels. This inaction will result in the current EU embargo of weapons to Syria lifting at the end of the month and has fuelled further suspicion that the West is preparing to intervene to a greater extent in the conflict. Russia, sensing this shift in Western attitudes said it would send S-300 missiles to shore up its defences in the region. At present there are great indications that a country which has been torn apart by bloody, intense and sometimes barbaric acts of violence could soon be flooded with yet more arms. Such an act would not only increase the already staggering civilian death rate, but could possibly plunge Syria into an unchangeable state of constant warfare. 


Those who support arming the rebels claim that military aid would go only to the ‘moderate’ rebels, and if possible such an act could help strengthen the battle against Mr. Assad and his government. However, this is a highly unrealistic proposal as there is no certainty in reports coming out of Syria, meaning locating and ensuring arms went only to ‘moderate’ rebels would be a logistical nightmare. Moreover, Syria has become a magnet for radical fighters across the globe, and there is a danger the country could be overrun with such extreme organisations. Since such organisations have a greater access to arms and are structured more effectively than ‘moderate’ civilian led resistance groups, it is not difficult to understand why ordinary Syrians, fearing for their lives, are attracted to joining the more extremist groups in order to fight their government. Despite some feeling that arming the rebels would ensure that Syrians and not extremist groups have the stronghold in Syria, there is no guarantee that arms would reach the ‘moderate’ groups, meaning that the arms supplied could fall into the hands of extremist organisations. The international community should be aiming to reduce the level of arms in the country, not increase it, in order to ensure that Syria does not become a strong-hold for militant organisations. Violence will only breed violence, and given the escalation of the refugee crisis on Syria’s borders time the money will be better spent aiding those who have fled the conflict. Hence, whilst there are escalating calls to arm the rebels on account of the suggestion that Mr. Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people, the international community should not give up hope in finding a diplomatic solution to the conflict. 

Arming the rebels may not just destabilise Syria, but could have a negative impact on world-wide international relations. The situation in Syria has already caused divides among the international community, with Russia, Iran and on occasion China protecting Mr. Assad’s government. Russia’s intention to send S-300 missiles to the region could prove disastrous for the whole world. Israel has already said it would be forced to knock out such missiles on arrival, meaning arming the rebels could have possibly lethal consequences for the whole region. Even if one agrees with arming the rebels upon the principle that it would ensure Mr. Assad’s departure from governance, the question must be asked if it is Europe’s place to become involved in yet another conflict in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have already backed the rebels with arms and money, surely these stable regional counterparts are better placed than the U.K. to intervene and influence the situation on the ground?

Whilst arming the rebels may seem like a viable solution in the short-term, the long-term implications of such an act could be crippling for the whole country. For increasing the level of arms in Syria would not only increase the loss of life, but could hamper attempts to de-arm Syria in any peaceful post-conflict rebuilding of the state. These men who gain arms are unlikely to surrender their weapons unless they feel the government put into place represents them, and since the current opposition to Assad is at best fractured and at worst completely ineffective there is a strong possibility that there will be a vacuum of power if Assad is toppled. Unless greater effort is put into strengthening and expanding Syria’s political opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, the prospect of a peaceful post-Assad government is bleak. Hence, whilst the end of the conflict is desirable, it is not yet practical in terms of Syria’s long-term stability. The international conference on Syria, most likely to start in July but possibly as early as June 15th, provides all parties with a chance to form a universal approach the conflict. If opposition became truly untied, Western governments would be far wiser pledging to rebuild Syria and ensure stability whilst government is established and the constitution is written. Such promises would send a strong message to both Mr. Assad and the rebels and have a far great effect in expressing to the support rebels than any number of guns could.

By Millie Dyos-Szolkowska

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