Over the last few days there has been a cascade of politicians and analysts jumping on the bandwagon of arming the Free Syrian Army, from John McCain and Elliott Abrams to FP's Daniel Drezner. It's easy to understand why. The failure of the U.N. Security Council has blocked diplomatic efforts to achieve a political transition and has triggered a clear escalation in violence by Bashar al-Assad's regime. With the horrifying images of the dead and wounded in Homs and elsewhere, many people want to do something to stop the atrocities. But almost everyone who looks carefully at options for military intervention, however, quickly realizes how daunting such an operation would actually be with neither airstrikes nor safe areas likely to succeed and nobody (thankfully) willing to admit to contemplating boots on the ground.
As I expected a few weeks ago, arming the Free Syrian Army has therefore emerged as an attractive option to many. Advocates of arming the FSA argue that providing the internal Syrian opposition forces with advanced weapons, communications, and other support would even the military balance and give them a fighting chance against the Assad regime. It would give them the means to defend their cities and protect the population from security forces. It might allow them to take the fight to Assad and hasten the fall of his regime. Many Syrians on the ground are asking for such assistance. And it would do all this without the risks and costs of Western military intervention.
I have said many times that this is where I think Syria is going, whether or not the United States makes a decision to join the game (thus far, reportedly, it has not, but presumably the option is being debated). I want to find ways to help the Syrian people too, badly. And I can fully understand why this looks like an attractive option. But people need to think far more carefully about the implications of funneling weapons to the Free Syrian Army before leaping into such a policy. Here are some of the questions that need to be asked.
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?
Fourth, how will Assad and his allies respond to the arming of the opposition? Perhaps they will immediately realize their imminent defeat and rush to make amends. But more likely, they will take this as license to escalate their attacks, to deploy an ever greater arsenal, and to discard whatever restraint they have thus far shown in order to stay below the threshold of international action. It would also be very difficult to stop Russia, Iran, or anyone else from supplying fresh arms and aid to Assad once the opposition's backers are openly doing so. Providing arms to a relatively weak opposition will not necessarily close the military gap, then -- it might simply push the same gap up to a higher level of militarized conflict.
Fifth, what will we do when the provision of weapons fails to solve the conflict? Arming the opposition is held out as an alternative to direct military intervention. When it fails to solve the crisis relatively quickly -- and it most likely will fail -- there will inevitably then be new calls to escalate Western military support to airstrikes in the Libya-style. In other words, what is presented as an alternative to military intervention is more likely to pave the way to such intervention once it fails.
Sixth, what if Assad does fall? The armed opposition groups would then be in the dominant position to shape Syria's future, and they would not likely quickly demobilize or disarm. Should the Syrian state collapse suddenly, these armed groups would be operating in a security vacuum amid accumulated fears and rage. This is not a pretty picture.
There are other questions that should be asked before leaping into the "least bad" option of arming the Syrian opposition, including its legality and its implications for broader regional security. But the six I've outlined above should be enough to at least focus the debate. Arming the Syrian opposition is not a cheap and effective substitute for military intervention, and it is not a generally harmless way to "do something." It does not guarantee either the protection of the Syrian people or the end of the Assad regime. It is more likely to produce a protracted stalemate, increased violence, more regional and international meddling, and eventual calls for direct military intervention. It's probably going to happen whether or not the United States plays a role, though -- but at least we should know what we're getting into.