The Obama Administration finally has decided to provide lethal military support to the Syrian rebels. Yet, if Washington’s main focus is providing arms, a detailed review of just that one option suggests it probably would not be enough to prevent some additional regime successes. Moreover, giving arms only to so-called “vetted” (or moderate) rebel groups could aggravate tensions between disparate opposition camps, perhaps leading to rebel infighting. Some believe a US goal in supplying arms now (aside from bolstering the rebels) would be to re-balance the situation as a prelude to negotiations. Yet, getting the many combatants—especially the rebels—to stand down is unlikely, so the outcome of limited arms shipments could be familiar: more prolonged bloodletting and destruction.
Ideally, any robust US arms resupply to “vetted” rebels should have begun 18 months ago, when the rebels had established themselves as a viable counter to the regime, and the number of Islamic extremists in their midst was far more limited. A decision to do so now would risk being too selective militarily to have much overall impact. Also, some portion of whatever arms are supplied could trickle into extremist hands. And the option of having the US better coordinate the flow of arms to the opposition, if the amount of arms provided were not increased substantially, might not accomplish all that much in altering the situation to rebel advantage.
To elaborate on the country-wide military balance, even if supplies of arms successfully could be confined to relatively moderate rebels (although that distinction is a bit blurry inside Syria), they have not been the most successful opposition combatants against regime forces. The rebel military vanguard has been radical Islamist in character—even al-Qaeda affiliated—for some time now, a deeply disturbing trend in and of itself.
Then there is the thorny question of exactly what arms to provide. The rebels want large quantities of shoulder fired anti-tank rockets (like RPG-7’s) and surface-to-air missiles (like SA-7’s), as well as a far steadier supply of various types of ammunition. “Vetted” rebels probably should have been receiving large quantities of RPG-7’s and a reliable flow of ammunition long ago. But supplying SA-7’s or their equivalents is a different story, since any secured by terrorists could be used with great effect against commercial airliners—even US military transports in various regional venues.
Perhaps SA-7’s could be given in small numbers to “vetted” fighters to test how much of a difference these weapons actually would make and whether some of them would end up with extremist rebels. Monitoring such leakage effectively, however, would pose an extremely difficult challenge for US and other allied intelligence agencies. And, of course, there is the problem of possible straying from any such restricted policy by some regional suppliers (such as Qatar, which many suspect has been supplying rebel extremists).
Still, which rebels to supply aside, even an upgraded and more reliable flow of munitions to them might not enable the opposition to halt or reverse the momentum regime forces have seized, at least over the near-term. Thousands of Hezbollah combatants already are in the field with plentiful supplies and training. The regime rebound also appears to have been driven in part by an intensified fear within its popular base of the consequences of a Sunni extremist victory (probably with good reason).
Only a more complex and demanding no-fly zone in rebel-dominated northern Syria, in the south where the regime has made gains, both, or across the country entirely could remove the rebel need for SA-7’s, but such a course carries with it the very real potential for escalation. With a massive advantage over the rebels in armored vehicles and heavy artillery, even in the face of a no-fly zone suppressing Syrian aerial activity, the rebels would remain at the mercy of the regime’s other heavy weapons on the ground, thus tempting those establishing any sort of no-fly zone to attack regime ground targets as well.
Still worse, the lack of effective military coordination among many rebel groups has been a major tactical disadvantage that more weapons—and training—would not correct. This allows regime and Hezbollah forces to concentrate in selected locales (possibly Aleppo next) to maximize their advantage. Meanwhile, less coordinated rebel elements would likely remain unable to do likewise on a comparable scale (especially if the many hard-fighting extremist rebel cadres were left under-armed). Another growing problem for the rebels is popular support: excesses on the part of extremist elements have alienated significant numbers of Syrians previously supportive of the opposition in some key areas under rebel control.
An additional potential risk of selective arms shipments could be clashes between rival rebel groups. Extremist elements might attack more moderate rebel units receiving better arms, driven by need, resentment, or both. Some al-Qaeda in Iraq militants flowing into Syria already are veterans of combat against Arab forces allied to the US. Rebel infighting has occurred in past rebellions, such as the savage fighting that broke out between the less fanatical Islamic FIS and the militant GIA during their battle against the Algerian regime in the 1990s.
A conflict within a conflict possibly pitting the extremist al-Nusra Front and the like against more moderate rebels exclusively receiving arms from the US and its allies would worsen an already complex and ugly maelstrom. Instead of strengthening the rebels, any infighting resulting from an inequitable distribution of arms would weaken both rebel factions—something the government eagerly would exploit to its advantage (as happened in Algeria).
It is no wonder it took the Obama Administration since late last summer to formulate a policy on lethal American support for Syria’s rebels, with limited regime chemical weapons use only partly driving the decision. But even by mid-2012, supplying enough weapons to make a difference without providing them to extremists already had become an iffy proposition militarily. And with the opposition disunited, with some component groups bitterly opposing talks and rebels now regaining hope for victory over the regime with US help, useful diplomatic engagement also seems less promising than when Secretary John Kerry went to Moscow early last month.
Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office.