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Ammunition belts to nowhere

March 11, 2012

While much digital ink has spilled on this blog in opposition to safe zones and air strikes as a strategically viable form of intervention, there is another, more commonly supported aspect of intervention in Syria that gets far more credit than it deserves: arming the rebels. A plethora of overlapping arguments has been trotted out in their favor.

The first, and most obviously tenuous argument, is that sending arms to the rebel would tip the scales towards victory, rather than just result in an extended and bloody proxy war. As Andrew Exum has pointed out, it takes a lot of wishful assumptions to believe that man-portable missiles are going to enable defectors and militiamen to resist full-out offensives by Syrian troops. The Syrian military is formidable and significant portions of it will be from a minority which believes itself to be fighting for survival.

Shadi Hamid, and many other commentators, have rather bizarrely trotted out Bosnia as an example of how lightly armed groups, with limited ground support and air support, can defend and hold safe-zones:

If the objective of intervention is to protect civilian populations, then the first step is for the United States to help other countries provide Syrian rebel forces with both light arms and more advanced antitank and antiaircraft weaponry. The right to self-defense is a right guaranteed by international law. The second step would be the designation of liberated zones—particularly those along the border with Turkey—as safe havens, as was done in Bosnia during the 1990s.

Hailing Bosnia as a model for intervention in Syria is something like agitating for fixed border fortifications on the basis of the French experience in World War II. As reporters who experienced the Bosnian war firsthand, and indeed, anyone who knows that Srebrenica was a safe zone, understand, Bosnian safe zones were not winning combinations of lightly armed militias with international ground protection and air cover saving civilian lives, but frequently the site of horrific massacres. Naturally, interventionists would argue that a more expansive mandate would have enabled the Dutch peacekeepers to defend the safe zones, but just as the Dutch were, foreign special forces in Syria would be outnumbered and outgunned, and likely suffer significant casualties only to be overrun anyway.

But Bosnia is instructive because we do know what it actually took to render the country safe – full-scale ground offensives by  forces with relative parity to the Serbian troops. Take the end of the Siege of Bihać, which lasted three years. At first, Operation Storm seems to offer promising parallels. The Croatian army was composed mainly of veterans and defectors from the former Yugoslavian military. They received training and operational planning support from MPRI, a U.S. military contractor nominally teaching the Croatian army lessons about civil-military relations in a democracy, so as to skirt around UN resolutions attempting to prevent a proxy war. There the helpful parallels end. If we do as Exum enjoins us and look at the order of battle, the difference between Syria and Bosnia is stark.

The combined Croatian and Bosnian force which participated in Operation Storm had perhaps as many as 150,000 soldiers (mostly Croatian). Supporting them were over 350 tanks and 500 artillery pieces, along with dozens of aircraft and helicopters. This was against Serb forces numbering perhaps 50,000 with roughly similar numbers of tanks, artillery pieces, and aircraft.

In other words, in sheer mass of personnel, the Croats and Bosniaks mustered about three times the number of their opponents, and had similar – if not, with the support of MPRI factored in, better – levels of training and organizational competency. Reducing the end of the Bosnian war to a happy narrative about planes and safe zones not only ignores the utter failure of the safe zone components, but the fact that victory on the ground was often earned by the conventional military superiority of the Croatians and Bosnians themselves. They did not operate as guerrillas with portable anti-vehicular missiles, they arrayed armor and artillery and formations of basically competent troops that generally matched or over-matched the quality and quantity of their opponents. Even with air power, it still took major conventional military offensives to ultimately secure and relieve the safe areas humanitarian intervention had nominally established. As always, in a war, regardless of the objective, basic strategic logic and logistical realities still apply.

So when Roger Cohen of the New York Times says this:

As the Bosnian war showed, the basis for any settlement must be a rough equality of forces. So I say step up the efforts, already quietly ongoing, to get weapons to the Free Syrian Army.

One must assume he is ignoring either the actual history of the Bosnian war, the order of battle of Syria’s combatants, or both.

If one really wants to see what happens when a foreign power arms and trains a “ragtag army” against an unpopular government that also happens to be an enemy of the United States, there are, of course, more instructive historical precedents – but not one that I suspect many of the liberal advocates of Syrian intervention would prefer to mention, or the conservative advocates prefer to remember. The example, of course, was the long campaign to back Nicaragua’s Contras against the Sandinista government. The Contras were indeed a ragtag army which could cross borders into Honduras and Costa Rica. They eventually received advanced equipment such as Redeye missiles to shoot down Contra gunships. They fought against a government under significant economic and political pressure from neighbors and the United States.

Now, it would be reasonable to argue that the FSLN was more popular than Assad – it is dubious that Assad could reproduce the FSLN’s 1984 electoral victory without even more egregious manipulation of the votes and intimidation of the opposition. However, it would also ignore the fact that the FSLN junta began splintering almost as soon as it took power, with major political figures and guerrilla fighters leaving the movement just as it had established its grip on power. Assad’s hold on the country is far less tenuous, and the minority-dominated components of his military are far more professional than the FSLN forces. Unlike Syria, the FSLN was not representative of ethnic minorities fighting for political survival, as major portions of Syria’s Alawites and Christians feel they are.

Regardless, what happened in Nicaragua is a good counterpoint to narratives about foreign support for the rebels. U.S. military support resulted not in a quick toppling of a shaky government, but a nearly decade long continuation of the civil war culminating in a campaign of assassination and intimidation, under which Nicaraguan citizens chafing under decades of sanctions voted knowing that keeping the FSLN in power would perpetuate a devastating civil war. This political outcome, from a humanitarian standpoint, was worse than useless – it was counterproductive. Dragging out a civil war is unlikely to protect civilian livelihoods, or prevent further human rights abuses. Instead, both the FSLN and the Contras were able to continually justify assassinations, torture, kidnapping, mass rape, and all manner of other odious behaviors. Unifying the opposition was a long and arduous task – the U.S. cycled through several inchoate coalitions of Contra umbrella organization with often disappointing results. Indeed, the U.S. rather uncomfortably merged former supporters and opponents of Somoza under the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, while some defectors refused outright to work with the U.S., such as the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance. The lessons from Nicaragua are not meant to present a perfect analogy, but a danger of what a policy of proxy war can reap.

Firstly, arms don’t stay put. In a clever move, the U.S. had used stocks of Eastern bloc arms to send to Nicaragua and the Honduran enclaves of the FDN to maintain plausible deniability. But some commanders of El Salvadoran leftists, waging an insurgency against a U.S.-backed regime, claimed that they had received a major influx of arms from Contra stocks. While the Eastern bloc arms allowed the U.S. to plausibly claim they were of FSLN or Cuban origin, the possibility of Syrian rebel forces re-selling arms to unsavory actors is a significant one. If al-Qaeda in Iraq or Hamas, which have thrown in their lot against Assad, have money to spend, it could well be foreign-supplied arms they buy. Even leaving aside the possibility of ideological affinity motivating the resale of arms to anti-Western groups, arms smuggling can be a lucrative trade, and it is one the civil war-torn nations of Central America are still struggling with.

Secondly, arms don’t make rebels into saints. When the U.S. put weapons into the hands of former Somoza security forces and hardened guerrilla fighters alike, it did not suddenly acquire a means to moderate their behavior. Rather than behaving civilly to soothe the consciences of their American patrons, the Contras served up atrocities that undermined their own patron’s PR campaign. How on earth is the U.S. going to hold a guerrilla commander in the field accountable? If he oversees an atrocity, what is the U.S. to do?  Send in Special Activities to take his machineguns and recoilless rifles away? Have his CO relieve him of duty? If Syrian rebels choose to undertake summary executions, reprisal killings, torture, kidnapping, and rape, what can the U.S. do to stop them? Even if it chooses to stop shipments of arms, it will have no way of recalling the arms it already sent. Such a question is likely academic, as the rebels will always appear the lesser evil and arms shipments would probably continue anyway.

Of course, there are other problematic arguments in favor of arming the Syrian rebels. One is that if the U.S. does not start doing it, opportunities for radical Islamists will proliferate, as Saudi Arabia and Qatar back radical proxies and al Qaeda takes a great role. Stephen Hadley argues this case in rather paradoxical terms. Hadley begins by noting that arming Syria’s rebels may not end Assad’s reign soon, but then says:

The longer this struggle goes on, the more militarized it will become. The more militarized it becomes, the more Syria’s future will be dictated by who has the most guns, not who gets the most votes.

And the more militarized the Syrian struggle becomes, the greater the opportunity for al-Qaeda. Events in Somalia and Yemen show how al-Qaeda thrives on chaos and violence.

So, Hadley essentially wants to ensure that the conflict goes on longer and becomes more militarized, as he hopes to support the weak side of a civil war and provide it with more weaponry. He then correctly notes that destabilizing Syria could offer new opportunities for al Qaeda, even though he argues explicitly for measures to destabilize Syria and further militarize the Syrian opposition. He then argues, with implicit reference to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, one presumes, that:

The United States will need to take the lead so that such arming does not become a vehicle for a proxy war in Syria between competing regional states but instead contributes to building a stable and democratic Syria for all its people.

As if the United States being an extra-regional power makes its armament of Syrian rebels something besides proxy warfare. But there are several potential flaws to the argument that U.S. leadership in arms provisions could crowd out radical Islamist groups and regional powers with their own agendas.

For example, it is unclear how the United States would proffer arms unto Syrian rebels without making itself dependent upon regional intelligence services. Unlike Nicaragua, where the target state was bordered by countries with permissive environments for the CIA or explicit U.S.-backed or client regimes, it is virtually impossible for the U.S. to create supply routes for Syrian arms to combat zones without the acquiescence or support of states such as Turkey, Jordan, or Iraq. Even assuming these countries grant the U.S. permission to stage equipment there, they will likely still require the aid of foreign intelligence and special forces personnel, such as Qatar’s special forces, to get arms to the actual rebel units. A massive deployment of Special Activities or U.S. Special Forces to perform a similar task would be a significant risk for the U.S. and still need some kind of cooperation from Syria’s neighbors. A more likely scenario is that the U.S. will need to significantly cooperate with Arab or Turkish intelligence services to arm the Syrian rebels, as the U.S. had to cooperate with the ISI during Operation Cyclone. If regional partners believe the U.S. is giving their objective short shrift, they will either set up parallel programs or worse, divert U.S. supplies or manipulate U.S. policies to support their own ends.

Furthermore,  this co-dependency with foreign intelligence services, and the likely entrance of other states into the rebel armament business will undermine any ability of the U.S. to enforce its democratic and inclusive standards on rebel groups. If the U.S. tries to counteract regional interests by refusing to arm certain commanders or parts of the opposition, then other backers will fill the vacuum, further fragmenting the opposition. On the other hand, if the U.S. works with regional intelligence services, it will find itself limited in its ability to exercise influence over the shared proxy’s behavior. The very addition of foreign intelligence services to proxy warfare makes the notion of leverage over the Syrian rebels rather fantastical. After all, Qatar and Saudi Arabia do not care about creating an inclusive Syria, they care about overthrowing Assad. Their regimes will not be so squeamish about backing torturers or summary executioners, nor feel so guilty if ethnic cleansing or reprisal killings occur.

There are plenty of uses for arming proxy groups. Quickly winning the Syrian civil war is not one of them. Arming Syria’s rebels may seem justified or a moral imperative, but that does not make it wise policy. Sending arms to Syria’s rebels will not only guarantee but necessitate, for the rebels’ sake, a longer conflict. It will not prevent the Syrian army from conducting devastating and brutal sieges. It will simply draw out humanitarian abuses and empower, not restrain, potential abusers on the rebel side. It will not give the U.S. the ability to mold the political outlook of post-Assad Syria, whenever that finally arrives, because it will force the U.S. into greater dependency on other regional actors, rather than removing the leverage of competing regional interests in Syria. Finally, rather than preventing proxy warfare, black market arms trading growth, or radical Islamist influence, it will simply open up more opportunities for all of these behaviors. Though less spectacularly dangerous than direct military intervention, arming Syria’s rebels is still a dangerous course of action with very little to commend it and even more to condemn it.

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