Why arming Syria’s rebels might be a bad idea.

In an article published recently in Left Foot Forward, Marko Attila Hoare speaks in favour of arming the Syrian rebels:

According to the dictum attributed to Edmund Burke, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Yet evil will triumph even more easily if good men help the evil-doers. In the Syrian civil war, with more than 80,000 dead and no end in sight, that is what the European Union has been doing, by upholding an arms embargo on the supply of weapons to all sides“.

syriaHowever this argument puts far to simplistically the real situation in Syria.  Whilst the dispute started in the form of a popular uprising which naturally commanded the support of all progressive people, the uprising against the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad has been joined by a whole spectrum of armed groups ranging from disaffected young Sunni warriors from Iraq to Al Qaeda affiliates, in addition to those directly connected to anti-regime exiles.

Whilst there has been an official arms embargo by the EU, Arab states including Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been funding and supplying  the rebels with everything apart from heavy artillery or aircraft in an escalation of the sectarian division between Sunni and Shia adherents which has been regularly erupting into warfare in recent decades.

This is also now a proxy war between the West and Israel on the one hand, against Iran and Russia on the other. This is an important consideration when people talk about the possibility of a ‘no fly zone’ because Russia is unlikely to tolerate the same kind of approach that was adopted in Libya, where ground forces of one side were pummeled by the latest advanced aircraft from high altitude.

The Assad regime and most of its army are Alawites who follow a branch Shia Islam. They were long persecuted for their beliefs by the various rulers of Syria, until Hafez al-Assad took power there in 1970 and today they represent 12% of the Syrian population.  This is almost precisely the reverse situation that prevailed in Iraq prior to the Western intervention where a Sunni minority ruled over a Shia majority.  Both regimes were however explicitly secular and  originally bound together by the Baathist movement, a version of Arab ‘socialism’, (the degenerated patriarchal form, copied from the Soviet era with a ‘strong man’ in charge).

Anyone who has watched the BBC historical drama concerning the Tudors will surely realize that real world politics generally shape the direction and dynamics of religious schisms. It’s beyond the scope of this article to submit a proof but my suspicion is that the Suni/Shia divide rather than being something that drives warfare is the tool of empires by which people can be persuaded to kill each other.

What’s riding on the outcome of the Syrian civil war goes way beyond a national liberation struggle  and those willing to escalate the war to a conclusion need to be careful what they wish for.  There are hawks in the Western camp that would welcome an open military conflict between Iran and the West and/or Israel which could escalate completely out of control.

It’s also how supplying more arms could actually save the lives of women and children caught in the crossfire. This reservation is echoed by the relief agencies on the ground who seem to be against pouring fuel onto the fire. The only way this killing is going to stop is by getting representatives of both sides around a negotiating table.

Joanne Telfer

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