Marc Lynch enumerates some of the pitfalls in the proposals for providing Western military support for Syria’s opposition: First, who exactly would be armed? The perennial, deep problem of the Syrian opposition is that it remains fragmented, disorganized, and highly localized. This has not changed. The “Free Syrian Army” remains something of a fiction, a convenient mailbox for a diverse, unorganized collection of local fighting groups. Those groups have been trying to coordinate more effectively, no doubt, but they remain deeply divided. For all their protestations of solidarity, the Syrian National Council and the FSA show few signs of working well together, while repeated splits and conflicts have emerged in the media within the FSA. So to whom would these weapons be provided, exactly? I expect that what will happen is that foreign powers will rush to arm their own allies and proxies (or are already doing so); which ones are the United States meant to choose? While claims about the role of Salafi jihadists in the armed opposition are likely exaggerated, the reality is that we know very little about the identities, aspirations, or networks of the people who would be armed.
Second, how would the provision of weapons affect the Syrian opposition? Access to Western guns and equipment will be a valuable resource that will strengthen the political position of those who gain control of the distribution networks. Competition for those assets does not seem likely to encourage the unification of the fragmented opposition, and it could easily exacerbate their divisions. What’s more, fighting groups will rise in political power, while those who have advocated nonviolence or who advance political strategies will be marginalized. Fighting groups’ political aspirations will likely increase along with their military power. The combination of militarization and more ambitious goals will make any political solution that much less likely. And it could increase the fears of Syrian fence-sitters who have stayed with Assad out of fear for their future.
Third, what will the weapons be intended to achieve? I can see at least three answers. Perhaps they’ll be meant to be purely defensive, to stop the regime’s onslaught and protect civilians. But this relatively passive goal does not seem a likely stable endpoint once the weapons start flooding in. A second possibility is that they’ll be meant to give the rebels the power to defeat the regime on the battlefield and overthrow it. But that does not seem realistic, since it would require far more fire power than would likely be on offer to reverse the immense imbalance in favor of regime forces. A third possibility is that they’ll be meant to even the balance of power sufficiently to force Assad to the bargaining table once he realizes that he can’t win. But the violence of the escalating civil war will make such talks very difficult politically. The provision of arms probably won’t be intended to create a protracted, militarized stalemate — but that does seem the most likely outcome. Is that the goal we hope to achieve?