Deadly Ambiguities

Michael Neumann

What do people mean when they discuss 'intervening' in Syria? Air attacks? ground troops? arming the opposition? The ambiguities are costing many lives. There is no need for air attacks or ground troops, and they're not live options. No one will go that far without UN approval, which won't happen. But there is an urgent need to arm the opposition, and this can be done without the UN.

The case against air attacks is pretty well known. Assad's forces are everywhere in a densely populated country, including many cities. Surgical strikes, a flawed but viable strategy in Libya, are out of the question. It's also quite unclear what air power could accomplish, given Assad can wreak havoc with artillery pieces, mortars, his own infantry, and thugs with knives.

Ground troops aren't a good idea either. No one wants them, and their air support would involve all the difficulties associated with air attacks. Moreover they would encounter strong opposition from a wide spectrum of the population. They would be regarded as a conquering army by many who despise Assad.

Arming the opposition involves none of these problems. Some claim that supplying arms would be an ineffective first step, resulting in a prolonged civil war (a stalemate), or the need for ground troops and air attacks, with all their attendant disadvantages. This fear is not so much groundless as incoherent.

Arming the opposition might indeed lead to prolonged civil war. So might not arming the opposition. Why would the civil war be any less prolonged if the opposition must make do with what they have? As things stand, they grow stronger, not weaker. It is not as if they will ever surrender, because surrender would mean not only their own death, but the death of those they protect. And why look to a future that's already here? Why fear a catastrophic civil war in the midst of a catastrophic civil war?

The arguments are not just bizarre; they are unsound. Why suppose that arming the opposition would produce a stalemate? Recent history suggests that such a policy may well be a resounding success. Though the US no doubt was ill-advised to provide weapons to secure a Taliban victory over the Soviets in Afghanistan, no one disputes the effectiveness of their short-sighted strategy. The situation in Syria is no less suited to such an approach. Assad's army is strong, the experts say, but they ignore the ever-increasing pace of defections, far exceeding anything the Soviets experienced. As for the use of any arms supplied, much of the opposition has excellent military training, as is apparent from how they fight. Unlike the Libyan amateurs, there is no comedy of flashy advances followed by hasty retreats. There is no celebratory gunfire; there are no ill-advised assaults. The opposition use what they have to great effect.

They don't need much more: a large supply of ammunition, including modern shoulder-fired anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, plus communications and night-vision equipment, plus medical supplies. Providing these supplies might require air-drops, using helicopters or cargo planes with fighter escorts. This involves some risk to the air crews, but virtually none to the civilian population. It conjures up no spectre of foreign conquest, nor of a quagmire. It is a no-brainer.

Some commentators don't fear a stalemate; they fear opposition victory followed by sectarian slaughter. But this mere possibility can't outweigh the certainty of Assad's atrocities. The fear also ignores how an opposition victory would unblock the stalemate at the UN. The Security Council would be as united against sectarian slaughter as it is divided on Syria today; effective international action would follow: China and Russia would be only too happy to take the lead in these circumstances. In any case it is a mystery why sectarian slaughter is any less to be feared if Assad wins.

Why then are no arms provided? Not least, because the discussion of 'military action' and 'intervention' is shot through with toxic confusion. It is as if we were talking about cable TV packages, where you can't get what you want without a bunch of stuff you don't want. We're not. We're talking about people's lives. There is a cheap alternative that is largely ignored because it is mistaken for a costly one. That mistake needs correcting as soon as possible.