Arming the Syrian Rebels: A Bad Case of Deja-Vu

 In Alternatives to War, Arms Sales and Military Aid, Syria

The  flag of al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra flying over the  the Syrian city of Raqqa. The group controls the city and is using extremist tactics to repress the populace.

Should the U.S. send lethal arms to one side in a brutal civil war?

Earlier this week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee answered that question with a hearty “yes”, voting 15-3 to arm the Syrian rebels in that nation’s brutal civil war.

With widespread war crimes and other abuses being committed by both sides in the conflict, Congress should think twice before endorsing lethal weaponry as the only strong action we can take to support the Syrian people. The bill, sponsored by committee chairman Robert Menendez (D – New Jersey) and ranking member Bob Corker (R – Tennessee), was a bi-partisan effort to get the Obama administration to cave into pressure to arm the rebels.

The Obama administration has been concerned about the Syrian rebel fighters’ ties to Al-Qaeda and the mounting human rights abuses by rebel forces.  At Peace Action West we share the administration’s concerns. We absolutely need to do even more to help the Syrians. But the choice is not between arming the rebels and doing nothing.  The U.S. could help, for example, by parachuting in  (figuratively at a minimum) badly needed humanitarian aide to the region. That would give immediate protection and support to Syrian noncombatants much more quickly and effectively than sending arms to rebels who could use those weapons to harm more noncombatants.

So far the administration has addressed the Syrian crisis by rallying international humanitarian efforts to protect Syrians impacted by the crisis. There are over a million and a half refugees in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon that we can focus on getting help to. The administration had also funneled  $115 million in non-lethal aide directly to the Syrian opposition for Syrian still in Syria.  This aid includes money to rebuild basic services like water, electricity, and public health in opposition controlled areas. Secretary of State Kerry is also leading a major diplomatic initiative with Russia, the Arab League and other regional players that would lead to peace talks beginning next month. These efforts can and should get increased funding and political emphasis.

It’s easy to get seduced by a narrative that arming the noble resistance would allow then to triumph against the evil dictator. But that’s far from the reality on the ground in Syria. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others have detailed egregious human rights violations by rebel forces. Documented abuses include kidnapping, summary executions, targeting of minorities, torture, indiscriminate attacks that harm civilian non-combatants, and the use of child soldiers. These are the “good guys”? Needless to say, the violence of the Syrian authorities has been truly reprehensible. Assad’s regime are responsible for more than their share of the bloodshed. But both sides are clearly engaging widespread and serious abuses and increasing the firepower of one of the sides isn’t going to protect innocent bystanders.

Déjà vu all over again?

Not only are some of the Syrian rebels violating human rights with the weapons they already have, factions within the fractious opposition coalition have ties to Al-Qaeda. Rebel fighters and sometimes entire units have been deserting the main armed opposition group the Free Syrian Army for the al-Nusra front an al-Qaeda affiliate – their arms are no doubt coming with the deserting soldiers. Jabhat al-Nusra, sometimes called al-Qaeda’s Syrian arm, was founded by al-Qaeda in Iraq and they are an important part of the Syrian armed opposition. In areas controlled by al-Nusra their are reports of extremist repression like harassment and detention of women and girls for not wearing headscarves. Sound familiar? There’s a certain Alice in Wonderland quality in Congress’s eagerness to arm a coalition that includes strong participation from an Al-Qaeda group using the brutal tactics from of the Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan. Things sure do get curious on Capitol Hill.

Supporters of arming the rebels say they the arms will only go to “vetted” elements within the opposition.  But as Rosa Brooks, a former civilian leader in the Department of Defense, pointed out in Foreign Policy:

“It’s not clear that we even have the ability to provide weapons just to the “good guys.” Even if we think we can identify “the good guys” within the opposition, and then ensure that weapons are delivered only to them, there’s no guarantee that the good guys will remain the good guys (as opposed to taking their nice new U.S.-supplied weapons with them when they cross over to al-Nusra). And even if the good guys stay “good” in the short term, I wouldn’t place bets on their long-term goodwill towards the United States.”

In the same piece Brooks also points out caches of U.S. weapons intended for the Afghan police have wound up in the hands of the Taliban. Sound familiar? The same kind of thing happened in Iraq. If the U.S. can’t keep track of the weapons it is handing out to armed forces it is closely allied with in countries where tens of thousands of U.S. troops are stationed how will be able to monitor where these weapons are going from afar? Have we learned nothing from arming another loosely affiliated group of rebels — the proto-Taliban Mujahideen and the likes of Osama bin Laden? Does Congress need to be sent back in school to take Blowback 101 again to avoid being doomed to repeat history?

Cold feet even among interventionists

Even past supporters of arming the rebels are getting cold feet as the brutality of the rebels as well as the fractured and dubious nature of their coalition becomes more clear. Persian Gulf States are getting cold feet about their own plans to arm the rebels. Josh Rogin writing in The Daily Beast pointed out that here in the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, who had originally supported arming the opposition, appeared to getting more concerned about such an approach:

Last month, Dempsey testified that the idea of arming the opposition had become more complicated because U.S. understanding of the Syrian opposition groups was not clear.

“My military judgment is that now that we have seen the emergence of al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham notably, and now that we have seen photographs of some of the weapons that have been flowing into Syria in the hands of those groups, now I am more concerned than I was before,” he said.

It’s tempting to imagine that arming the good guys against the bad guys will protect the people we all want to protect. In Syria that’s dubious because both sides are already heavily armed and have fought to a stalemate. In general, the history of U.S. arming “non-state actors” has often ended in great harm to the very people we were trying to protect. From Angola to Nicaragua to the former Yugoslavia, U.S. arms intended to help innocent victims ended up fueling conflict and hurting innocents.

Congress should slow down on its plan to fund the Syrian rebels. If you agree call your Senator and ask them to vote FOR increased humanitarian funding and diplomatic efforts, and AGAINST arming human rights abusers. Call your Senate offices directly or you can reach them through the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

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  • kara j lincoln

    thank you Jon,

    this is a great article you wrote!

    I don’t know how John McCain could endure what he did + still want more war. the man needs to he healed.

    he + others wanting to give weapons fail to see the global perspective of all the partners/principals involved, that could easily trigger WW3.

    not to mention prolong the misbelief that is fueling many to think they are dying for freedom, when many of us think all deserve to live to communicate.

    we have such good solutions to become inner/inter personally aware, as well restore ecological sustainable working communities, as we harmonize sharing this earth + beyond in peace, if we share what works;

    this is what we are still working at as we restructure, to make such a global platform, welcoming our students to come out of schoolroom + into + with community restore it`s potential. while each reflect, self-develop, heal, co_evolve curriculum along with the regulatory policies as the local community is naturally restored to sustain all. so each can then be supported to build ones path as they walk it, into ones opening.

    if not fortunate to have a school then we will reach out to reps, same if no community, define a rep. + in an interchangeable role, a good virtual tool can be made if we all focus direct together, sharing via like ecosystem/subject. + everything we do virtually we duplicate eye to eye. expecting no adult that chooses not to have a computer. rather our students can reach out in a local walkabout + experience this transition as they complete their prerequisites. only then to continue to explore as they further their education, aiding all to understand + do the same.

    when one visits their pen pal they shared with, while do_in the restoration, + perhaps together choose the collective consciousness we all can share as we prioritize, making sure everyone has the right to do the same.

    we can`t think of a better application to go within, as many now carry what has been passed on or are results of their experiences, not knowing we have the ability to go in + sort out our baggage + develop that which has been deep within. we can harness this, do our homework, as we exchange, supporting us all to be present in our moment, as we create peace within. fueling us all to self-satisfy, yet leave no footprint.

    we respect the tongue of all to choose their own belief, but we believe we can transcribe a good science that can become a good tool to interpret what is best for our human family along with the natural world that has created great cultures, when one `boons with it. as well it will continue to give us life if we simply respect our natural limits.

    please have compassion for our experiences have created our neuro networks, if we have failed to process what we perceived. we can do this most efficiently if we daily apply good story, work for our local food sovereignty, put some earth in our hands, have a potluck + let it be your best guide, smell/taste the good food you can create.

    this gives us a good night sleep to then awaken with yet more creativity, more clarity + physical strength to continue peacefully. say no to the aggression as many gain from such confusion. don`t let anyone interfere in the peace within that only you can build. rather invite them to join in + tell them we have another `way. say no thanks to the weapons + realize the synergy we gain from our solidarity is much more powerful than any weapon of war.

    for those that have gone beyond it`s limits, we welcome them into a tapering transition. local good data can help them to rethink + become whole. + once the world experiences good modes of investment on the table for locals, as we prioritize our local natural food sovereignty, it then will fuel us to understand + protect what sustains us.

    please come + help us end the war mode + false green economies. you will be able to see how fragmented we are when we allow our sensors to dull. as we reflect with those that maintain sharp sensors in patches, simply living respecting all life.

    we will find the `way to link in an exchange with pockets without.

    we want to share the many good solutions from all, if we give one/ourselves support to heal. we just need to organize + reach out to all.

    we have a plan. if interested come talk. we need to bring all to the table with right support in place for each to rethink, heal + come back as a local, global + beyond responsible participant, accepting nothing less than harmony.

    it may hurt at times, but we as a human species has this potential + even the pain we can learn how to rid, if we support music to fill the air, not drones. give our children a line + they will run with it.

    May peace be with you all, kara j lincoln

  • Mark Luciano

    Have been hearing about sending non lethal aid to Syrian (extremist Muslims) rebels. Unfortunately, sending such aid frees up funds that can be used to purchase weapons.

  • Cynthia Cannady

    Peace Action is finally speaking out against Syrian intervention. If only you had done so earlier when there was a chance to educate the public and frame the issues correctly. Better late than never. But why now call for “humanitarian intervention” when the best thing we could do as a nation would be to stop supporting our allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as they fund mercenaries and terrorists trying to overview an elected government and spread violence throughout Syria. Let’s face the facts: once again oil and gas interests (found off the Syrian coast in 2010– and those who demonize Assad for his support of Palestinians, have started a war. Recall the accusations that the Syrian government used chemical weapons, then a UN Report came out with a finding that it was the rebels who had done so? I am glad that Peace Action points out the bad acts of the rebels, while suggesting that there are still “good rebels”. But why so late?

    War is corrupt and people suffer. The same thing happened in Iraq, then Libya. Same with Vietnam, Afghanistan, Kosovo. Why is Peace Action so slow to speak the truth? Or is it possible that you don’t see the pattern?
    It is easier to take a “balanced view” but is it truthful? I support Peace Action because it does speak out, but please try to speak out earlier and in a clear voice.

    Cynthia Cannady

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