Arming the Syrian revolutionaries

Having just attended the Hay Literature Festival in Beirut, Robin Yassin-Kassab writes: I spent one inspiring evening with a group of Syrian revolutionaries, supporters of the Free Syrian Army who confound the stereotypes propounded by the regime and picked up on by certain infantile leftists. Far from being Salafists and tools of imperialism, these were secular men and women (one of Christian background) sharing a flat and ideas, drinking whiskey and mate, reflecting on the surging movement of the recent past and checking internet updates on the immediate present. They were well-informed, intelligent, and nuanced in their thinking (at one point we discussed the nature of evil and the complex question of individual culpability). They had seen nasty things, yet talking to them made me surprisingly buoyant. They believed they were winning their fight.

At the end of May, Yassin-Kassab wrote: It’s too early to be certain, but it does seem that Qatari and Saudi promises to arm the opposition, or at least to fund arms purchases, are being fulfilled. The United States is reportedly helping to “coordinate” this process. After 15 months of slaughter and sectarianism, I find myself in the novel position of welcoming this vague intervention.

The dangers of foreign-funded civil war are many and obvious. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are not democracies, and Saudi and Qatari “investors” will not willingly invest in democracy. Private Gulf and other Islamist investors are likely to channel money to groups that understand the conflict in nakedly sectarian terms. The United States, one would expect, will also be doing its best to cultivate clients friendly to American and Israeli interests in the region.

I doubt that any outside power will be able to impose its candidate at the end. The balance of power in the region is currently too contested to allow one side a conclusive victory. But it’s almost certain that the country’s future leaders will be not civilians but military heroes. That’s because it’s almost certain that the conflict will be settled not by talking, but by guns. To the victor goes the spoils.

The overbearing role of armed men has been one of Syria’s curses since the foundation of the postcolonial state. A greater, and related, curse has been sectarianism — a monster now well and truly out of the bag and prancing in all its naked ugliness. Just as the regime managed to project a veneer of intelligence before the uprising by deploying urbane spokespeople and co-opted “intellectuals,” so it was long able to pose as the secular defender of Syria’s delicate social balance. Beneath the surface lay the reality: Syria is just another Levantine postcolonial regime — every bit as much a product of Sykes-Picot as the Zionist power structure. As the French appointed Maronites to rule Lebanon, they created “an army of minorities” that would rule Syria. The system has not been secularist but sectarian-secularist: Alawis overwhelmingly staff the upper ranks of the security and intelligence services, the most powerful branches of state whose permission is required for everything, from renting a building to opening a street stall. Though unfavored Alawis remain poor and marginalized, those with family connections to the security services are favored for jobs and other opportunities. The brooding social tensions this caused were set aflame when the regime began arming Alawi thugs and sending them into Sunni cities to kill, rape, and humiliate. Eyewitnesses from the town of al-Houla report that the people who cut the throats of children during the massacre were uniformed Alawis from a neighboring village.

In this context, the popular chant of the revolution — “the Syrian people are one” — sounds to many like an empty slogan. The damage is already done. It’s already too late for a happy ending. The civil war is here, and the longer the stalemate lasts the deeper the trauma will be. This is why I support supplying weapons to the Free Syrian Army. Let’s get it over with as soon as possible.

The regime deploys tanks, missile batteries, and helicopter gunships, and is aided and resupplied by Iran and Russia. Syrians have the right to defend themselves, and the right to the means to defend themselves. Most of the country, especially the Sunni heartland, has been reduced to something worse than Gaza. Syrians are fighting anyway — not for ideology, but for survival. They won’t stop fighting. Eventually they will win, although the field of their victory will be the smoking ruin of a poor and bitterly divided country. At some point before that, key sections of the military and the Alawi community will realize they have no hope of victory, and will either flee or switch sides. I would prefer this moment to come in a year’s time or sooner, not in another decade. Arming Syria’s guerrillas is the only way to bring about that result.

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5 thoughts on “Arming the Syrian revolutionaries

  1. Fedup21

    Paul, certainly not all or even a majority of the Syrian rebels are radicals, but I mean you have to believe there are some right?

    We also shouldn’t forget about the abuses carried out by the rebels, although from everything I have read they are on a smaller scale.

    I would also think there are some fighters who are essentially tools for countries like Saudi Arabia or Qatar given their role in providing arms and funds.

    I’m also taking it that you don’t agree with Yassin-Kassab given your comments earlier about wanting Russia to take up a larger role in forging a peace agreement? That sounds better than armed intervention to me.

  2. Paul Woodward

    These days all that it takes for a man in the Middle East to be dubbed a “radical” is that he grows a beard.

    Considering the fact that Syria served as a corridor for so many young men going to make themselves “martyrs” in Iraq over the last decade, I would say that the amount of violent extremism in the current conflict is more notable for its infrequency than its prevalence.

    In the 1970s Gaddafi was sending arms to the IRA. Did that make the Irish gunmen tools of the Libyans? I don’t think so.

    It seems like there are very few binary questions here — arms or diplomacy is not an either/or. More arms could inflame the conflict and fewer arms could prolong it and more arms could shorten it.

    The truth is, no one knows the future.

  3. Fedup21

    Yes, but the evidence presented in the document I linked to in the other comment section suggests that more often than not that more arms prolong conflicts.

    No, but I do think the comparative strength of the geographical, religious, and cultural links shared between them opens the rebels up to a greater degree of influence from nations like Qatar. Do you not deny that some people in history have become the tools or puppets of other indviduals or nations because that nation provided them with arms and funding? Arms and funding are a means by which to attain power. I am not saying most Syrian rebels are tools as I don’t believe that to be the case, but I do think there is a distinctive possibility that some would be if they found their way to power. Taking a note from you I will just say we don’t know at this point.

    I just don’t believe a nation like Saudi Arabia is intervening out of the goodness of the ruling family’s heart given their own record of abuse, their threat to cut off the finger of anyone who dare protest against them, and their intervention in Bahrain. They probably want to gain some degree of influence through their help, although I recognize they may not be successful.

  4. Paul Woodward

    There’s no question that the Saudis have zero interest in democracy promotion and that to the extent that they are providing financial and military support (and note again, we really have no idea what this amounts to) this support is not an expression of goodwill. From their perspective, getting rid of Assad no doubt looks like a way of stabbing ‘the snake’ – Iran. But from the fact that they have this motive it doesn’t follow that they will actually acquire influence in a post-Assad Syria. Look at how successful the US is in using money and weapons to wield influence. The US just gave Egypt’s generals $1.5 billion aid and when Clinton showed up the supporters of those generals pelted her with tomatoes.

    I think the key to determining the extent to which the support of armed groups translates into an ability to control what those groups do is the motivation of the individuals who make up those groups. Are they internally or externally driven?

    The anti-interventionist anti-imperialist choir gladly propagate Assad’s claim that he is up against the agents of foreign powers but there is very little hard evidence offered to back up this claim. It amounts to a doctrinal assertion that some people are clinging on to not, I believe, because they are convinced it is true but because they have developed an indiscriminate mistrust of the media and a brittle worldview.

  5. Fedup21

    To me the US’ influence in Egypt does not rest on whether the Secretary of State is getting food thrown at her or not, but rather whether or not Egypt is acting in a manner consistent with what the US government considers to be in its interests (i.e. not rocking the boat with Israel).

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