|Courtesy of the US Army on flickr|
Marc Lynch has come up with a long list of reasons why scepticism vis-à-vis arming the Syrian opposition should prevail, calling arming the Syrian opposition a daunting task. But just because it would be a daunting task is not a good enough reason for not doing it. Here is the complete list of what Lynch has to offer in opposition to arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA):
- We do not exactly know whom we should and would be arming. For one thing the Free Syrian Army is too localised and too small to really challenge the Assad regime, for another it is too fragmented and disorganised to be an effective adversary to the Syrian regime.
- We cannot provide enough weapons to really level the battlefield, the regular Syrian army is too well trained and well-equipped. Moreover, us arming the opposition could motivate the Russians and Iranians to arm the Assad-regime in response.
- What will Assad be doing in response?
- What if arming the opposition does not give the opposition a fighting chance or does not bring Assad to the bargaining table?
- What if he does fall and the ensuing chaos would be even more disastrous?
All these are perfectly valid points and questions that need to be raised. But I do take issue with this list for a couple of reasons and would challenge some of the points.
- It is certainly true that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is currently very small and weakly organised. But if we are waiting until the Free Syrian Army has the sort of command and control structures we are used to within NATO, we might be waiting a while. The whole point of the debated assistance is to help a generally weak opposition. Weakness is not a a very good argument against assistance. Such assistance could also be made conditional: as we arm the opposition, further arms shipments can be made conditional on progress in consolidating command and control structures within the FSA and some sort of a formal agreement
- Even if we do ship arms to the Syrian opposition, we will not be able to really alter the military balance in Syria. That much certainly is true. The regular Syrian armed forces have about 4900 MBTs, 2600 BMPs and another 1500 APCs at their disposal. This is an arsenal so large that Syria has amassed more firepower than most European NATO countries combined, at least far as ground forces are concerned. That is, if all of that stuff is actually operational, which I highly doubt. But arming the opposition would still help level the battlefield. Most of these tanks are of ancient design and can easily be hit. (The Russians have lost a number of comparable vehicles in the 2008 Georgian war and only prevailed because of a WWII-like strategy) The influx of weapons and the destruction of some weapons could trigger even more defections. The angle here is not levelling the odds in battle, but morale of government forces.
- It is also true that Iran and Russia might be arming the Syrian regime, once we start arming the opposition. But Iran and Russia are doing that anyway. And while Iran will continue to do so no matter what we do, the Kremlin might eventually realise that it is about to repeat all the foreign policy mistakes it made in the late 1990s on the Balkans.
- It is also true that arming the opposition might not help change the situation at all and that we might still have to intervene. Put differently arming the opposition might well pave the way for intervention. But politics is a game of alternatives, not ideal solutions. As long as the consensus is that we do not want to intervene now, but also do not want to see the Assad-regime to continue its horrible and awful regime, we might at least gain some time in the meantime by arming the opposition.
The case for arming the Syrian opposition is not be found in what or how little we know about Assad's adversary, it is to be found in how well we know Assad by now. Surely, problems might well remain, as they do in Libya. But the argument Marc Lynch completely fails to engage is that the lack of action is also producing costs, first and foremost in lives lost. Dan Drezner therefore has it right: Arming the opposition will be bloody and costly. But in all probability, that will still be the lesser of two evils.