Middle East

Arming Syria’s Opposition? Think again.

As Syria self-destructs, calls to arm the opposition are getting louder. However, arming the opposition without due diligence will result in disaster.

The so-called “Friends of Syria” meeting wrapped up late February in Tunis amid rumblings of arms shipments to Syrian rebels.  Since then, it was revealed that Saudi Arabia had already shipped arms to the opposition, while other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members like Qatar and Kuwait have called for arms shipments to be scaled up.  Despite the appearance of support for a movement worthy of sympathy these shipments represent a classic geopolitical play.  When combined with the unknown makeup of the opposition and Syria’s dizzying sectarian composition, the stage is being set for a religious and political battleground the likes of which the Middle East has yet to see.  Caution, moderation, and due diligence, above all, must be the guiding principles of any foreign support directed to the opposition.

Syria’s opposition

Little is known about the exact nature of Syria’s opposition except that they do not appear to be untied under a single political banner.  Some nations like France have begun to recognize the Syrian National Council as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in a move reminiscent of how the Libyan NTC came into international legitimacy.  U.S. Ambassador Rob Ford, who personally met with opposition groups before he left Syria, stated that the opposition is made up of two main constituent groups.  The first is more liberal and secular, while the second is Jihadist in outlook. A third middle group may also exist, namely those pushing for an Islamic government but less extreme in form.  Little is known about whether the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood resembles their Egyptian equivalents or whether they draw from more nefarious influences from groups like the Salafist Al-Nour Party in Egypt.  Perhaps most disturbing of all was official U.S. Government confirmation that Al-Qaeda in Iraq has begun to conduct operations in Syria against the Assad government.


Policy makers should be wary of the geopolitics swirling around the Syrian Revolution. Syria has been the playground of established powers and aspiring regional players for decades.  Bashar Al-Assad has continued the close relationship with Russia that his father Hafez initiated, and Syria plays host to a Russian naval base at Tartus.  Syria has been aligned with the regional heavyweight of Iran for years, while having strained relations with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the monarchical regimes of Saudi Arabia and Jordan.  As well, the Assad government has been heavily involved with Hamas and Hezbollah and in military interventions in Lebanon.

Good neighbours no more

The yearlong conflict in Syria has brought about many policy changes from Syria’s neighbours and great powers alike.  Turkey, a long time suitor of the Assad regime has entirely changed its tune on Syria in a wider effort to be seen on the ‘right side’ of the Arab spring.  It now plays host to Syrian opposition groups on its territory and is signaling support for arming them. Syria returned the favour in late 2011 by allowing the PKK to operate in Syria and by striking a deal with Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union to support the regime.   This move by Turkey represents an abrupt change from the years of “Zero Problem” courtship it conducted with the Assads following the 1999 Adana Agreement.  Relations between these two neighbours may be at even lower point than when Turkey threatened to invade Syria in the 1990s to crush Kurdish militants.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar

The other key geopolitical plays with the Syrian situation involve two key players in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Saudi Arabia has used the opportunity created by the Arab Spring to funnel support to friendly groups to expand its influence over the region.  Qatar, on the other hand has been punching consistently above its diplomatic weight and can best be described as Calgary with a Kissingerian foreign policy.

Saudi Arabia’s moves have included courting Salafis in Egypt, extremists in Libya, curiously sending troops to crush the Arab Spring in Bahrain, and supporting both sides in Yemen.  It is now funneling weapons tMost critical for Assad’s regime Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has indicated that Russia’s backing of its long-time ally may be waning.  The Foreign Ministry signalled that Russia would not provide military assistance in the event of a foreign military intervention in Syria but remained silent on the use of Russia’s UN Security Council veto again.hrough friendly tribesmen to extremist Sunni groups among the Syrian opposition.  Saudi moves to support ideologically friendly organizations like Egypt’s Al-Nour party are the reflective of their efforts to curb Western and Russian influence in the region and are part of a wider ‘cold war’ with Iran.


Saudi Arabia has also been no friend of Russia, another major player in the region left over from the Cold War.  The Saudi-Russian rivalry has been heated, notwithstanding a brief respite in the mid-2000s.  Relations were mainly strained by Russian support for Syria and Iran, regional bulwarks against Saudi influence, and Saudi Arabia’s support for Jihadis in Southern Russia.

Most critical for Assad’s regime Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has indicated that Russia’s backing of its long-time ally may be waning. The Foreign Ministry signalled that Russia would not provide military assistance in the event of a foreign military intervention in Syria but remained silent on the use of Russia’s UN Security Council veto again. Whether the Russians are actually changing their tune on Assad is still unclear. Putin’s remarks must be viewed in light of the March 4 Presidential Election where many have painted accurate parallels between his style of rule and that of Bashar Al-Assad.  Putin may very well be playing optics for an increasingly hostile domestic audience.  Overall, it is unlikely that Russia will ever vote in favour of a collective security response against Syria and would probably only abstain if support for Assad became completely untenable diplomatically.

International Responses

Other international responses are more limited.  David Cameron has expressed outrage against Assad and willingness to aid in ICC prosecutions.  France has publicly sworn to protect minorities in the region and seems always willing to ship arms to one group or another. China appears to be less supportive of Assad than the Russians; their reason for using the UN Security Council veto was the “principle” of not wanting to disturb any dictatorship around the world. Iran has been less focused on Syria of late with the costly intrigues of a nuclear weapons program and domestic elections.  As well, the Arab League has been quiet on arms assistance.   The United States, too, has avoided talk of arming the Syrian opposition.  It is likely that the U.S. will turn a blind eye to GCC and/or Turkish shipments in a manner similar to what happened in Libya, while providing more “peaceful” support to opposition groups.

Libya 2.0?

Although a desire to stop the violence in Syria on the part of Western governments may be well placed, caution must be exercised before sending arms or intervening militarily in Syria.  Drawing completely direct parallels to Libya to push for a rushed intervention in Syria is not only unhelpful, but also potentially dangerous as Libya can only serve as a limited informative example.  Moreover, even relatively simple Libya may be entering a period of extreme instability as once-hailed militia heroes refuse to disarm and vie for power.

Apart from a complex sectarian makeup and four times the population, the Syrian situation differs in a number of critical ways from Libya.  First, Libya was not a Russian or Chinese ally in 2011 thereby allowing the West more of a ‘free hand’ to deal with the Gaddafi regime.  Secondly, Syria’s military is far more potent than Libya’s and run by officers appointed along Assad’s divide and rule strategy.  Sectarian threats may make Assad’s loyal units even more beholden to their leader than Gaddafi’s forces ever were (Gaddafi also widely used mercenaries).  As well, the Syrian opposition appears to be in an even more critical situation than the NTC was immediately before NATO began airstrikes as Gaddafi’s troops tightened the noose around Benghazi.  Not only are Assad’s forces vastly superior to Gaddafi’s but Western airpower is also not on the way.  The opposition may still be relegated into a shadowy war of provoking small uprisings and attacking soft targets of the regime.  It is in those shadows that the risk of inadvertently arming regional extremists exists.  Consequences for governments throughout the region would be dire as they struggle to ensure even a scintilla of stability today.

Abundant Caution

There are good reasons for the West to exercise caution before dumping arms into the powder keg of Syria.  Without a reasonable chance of the moderates in the opposition prevailing carte blanche support for ‘every’ opposition group in the region is self-defeating.  The nebulous nature of the Syrian opposition, Syria’s sectarian makeup, as well as the tendency of Jihadi fighters to migrate to conflict zones are all setting the stage for a civil war in Syria that is even bloodier than the present conflict. Saudi Arabia is already arming groups ideologically similar to its extreme form of religion to expand its influence.  Though a nominal Western “ally” policymakers must realize that Saudi Arabia has a vastly difference conception of what the post-Arab Spring Middle East should resemble.

Sending caches of weapons blindly into Syria without building the capacity of a moderate and viable alternative to Assad will only fuel extremist groups in Syria and arm extremist groups outside of it.  A failed state in the heart of the Middle East, bristling with weapons and undergoing sectarian “cleansing” worse than even Iraq faced is a nightmare with dire consequences for the wider world.