As the United States begins providing arms to Syrian rebels , it enters an increasingly complex arena of arms-trafficking and proxy warfare. The highly factionalized Syrian rebellion and the combined third-party actors supporting it—often with competing aims—mean U.S. attempts to shape the Syrian conflict through military support will depend not simply on American resources and intentions, but the dynamics of the civil war and the network of actors that facilitates its logistics. With the U.S. role in Syrian arms-trafficking shifting from one of restraint to one of support, the difficulties encountered in producing viable political outcomes in Syria are likely to persist.
Last year, The New York Times reported the CIA was operating in Turkey to vet and deny certain Syrian factions access to Turkish, Saudi, and Qatari arms flowing into Syria. While the United States was unwilling to provide arms at that time, collecting intelligence on the Syrian rebellion via its allies’ programs to arm the rebels allowed America to make the best of increasing international involvement in the civil war. In addition, beyond the scope of U.S. regulation, arms-traffickers acting independently or without interference from regional governments help turn private donations into military support. Very often, thse private donors support jihadists and hard-line Islamists.
The power of the multiple actors to thwart U.S. attempts to steer the rebellion’s political course is frustrating, but expected. Donor countries and organizations gain more leverage by having more influence over the arms provided to rebel groups, and the presence of competing donors gives them two primary options for ensuring they retain effective proxies: They can either increase arms shipments to prevent other donors from marginalizing their influence, or they can steer their arms toward groups that are less likely to respond to the influence of other donors. Far from being a clear disincentive to arming anti-U.S. rebels or competing for influence with the United States in Syria, increased U.S. provision of arms is likely to encourage other countries and donors to provide more arms, both because of competitive incentives and the normative sanction of engaging in a now openly U.S.-approved activity.
If the U.S. goal is to shape the overall course of the rebellion, simply providing arms is unlikely to be enough. The United States would have to restrain the ability of private donors and allies to pursue their own agendas within Syria, as well as establish leverage and channels of accountability on the ground within Syria itself. While trying to vet the rebels last year was aimed at that goal, it proved insufficient to prevent U.S.-approved Croatian arms from rapidly falling into the hands of al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists and other extremist groups operating outside the scope of the Free Syrian Army command structure.
For example, Qatar, which took an outsized role in arming Libyan militants, including Islamist radicals, is now pursuing a similar policy in Syria, where a combination of ideological interests and practical concerns about influence encouraged Qatar to pursue policies of arming rebel groups contrary to U.S. interests. Qatar has been especially aggressive in providing man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) to rebel groups, whether from Libya’s vast stockpiles or Chinese-built FN-6s from an unknown source.
Saudi Arabia, too, reportedly used the occasion of increased U.S. arms provision—which initially was limited to small arms and ammunition—to supply additional heavy weapons to Syria. According to rebel sources, soon after the White House announced arms shipments to Syria, Saudi Arabia provided new shipments of highly demanded Konkurs anti-tank missiles, with promises of more and even more-sophisticated systems on the way. Not only that, but unlike the United States, which remains committed to political negotiations and provided arms after rebels requested them as a prerequisite for joining U.S.-facilitated talks, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are committed to militarily defeating the regime. That gives them a strong incentive to increase their own arms flows to rebels that share their political agendas. In the case of Qatar, arms falling into the hands of extremist groups may be an acceptable outcome on practical grounds alone—these groups are likely to be the most aggressive in fighting the regime, and they have already earned a reputation for battlefield competence.
Involved both in those state-sponsored dealings and in more shadowy facilitations of private arms provision are a variety of arms dealers. Former Libyan rebels and traffickers who participated in the uprising against the late Moammar Gadhafi have, since the early phases of the Syrian conflict, sought to transfer post-Gadhfi Libya’s massive arms stockpiles to Syria. In many cases this occurs with the approval of Libyan officials, although as the Libyan government’s loose authority over cities such as Benghazi demonstrates, even a Libyan government committed to cracking down on arms trafficking would face significant difficulty. Even more problematic are the arms donors serving wealthy private interests in the gulf, which overwhelmingly go to committed Islamists or jihadist groups. Take the example of the Great Kuwait Campaign, in which conservative Sunni Muslims financed millions of dollars of arms shipments through donations alongside car and jewelry sales. Even more shadowy donors provide arms and financial support directly to Salafi jihadist groups. American options for limiting that kind of shipments remain deeply limited.
It’s unclear how effective U.S. leverage over its own direct arms shipments will be. Since 2012, the United States has facilitated arms shipments and training from across the border in Jordan and Turkey. The U.S. trains and arms small groups of Syrian rebels, who in exchange provide the U.S. with intelligence. However, because those groups are operating without direct supervision or advisement while in Syria, U.S. designs are at the mercy of a complex array of factional alliances, middlemen and traffickers, and the unreliable intentions of guerrilla groups to ensure that its arms and training do not provide unintended benefits to Islamist and jihadist groups. That helps explain how U.S.-facilitated arms intended for secular groups rapidly fell into the hands of Jahbat al Nusra; the CIA has little power to enforce accountability over arms distribution so far from the battle lines. Barring, at the very least, the deployment of significant numbers of Special Forces or paramilitary officers into Syria itself—a risky escalation that would tax already overworked components of the U.S. military and intelligence community—Washington has few options for enforcing its constraints on the Syrian arms market.
While the administration appears reluctant both about the sophistication and quantity of the arms it sends to Syria, the myriad actors and competitive dynamics of the arms trade in the Syrian civil war appear likely to undermine American attempts to steer the political direction of the rebellion or marginalize hostile groups. With regional governments and non-state actors willing and capable of pursuing their own agendas in Syria, American options for carving out its own reliable allies within the rebellion remain limited, with aspirations of unifying the rebels through arms transfers a lofty ambition. Although less dangerous to the United States than launching a direct military campaign in Syria, the administration’s decision to arm the rebels will face steep obstacles to overcoming the rivalry and factionalism in the Syrian proxy wars.