After years of debate and increased involvement in the training and logistical support of Syrian rebel forces, the U.S. government authorized the CIA to begin directly arming opponents of the Bashar al Assad regime. Casualties from Syria’s civil war already number at least 93,000 according to some sources, and millions of Syrians are now refugees or internally displaced.
Meanwhile, the United States now confirms that Syria used chemical weapons in a number of instances, at a small scale that many fear may escalate. Chemical-weapons use provided rhetorical justification to this policy decision, but is not the entire reality of the matter. Internal pressure and Free Syrian Army leadership’s refusal to participate in a new round of negotiations at Geneva without U.S. weapons played a major role. Unfortunately for the United States and the administration, neither the known particulars of the U.S. plan, nor the concept of providing arms to rebel forces generally, appears likely to turn the war’s tide or secure lasting U.S. influence in Syria.
One significant issue with the current plan is that it only seems ready to supply small arms and ammunition. While providing such equipment is low-risk, it will not satisfy rebel groups who want heavier weapons, such as modern antitank and man-portable air-defense systems. Overpowering regime forces requires addressing their immense superiority in armored vehicles, aircraft, and artillery. While small arms and ammunition may be enough to keep some rebel formations in the fight, prolonged stalemate rather than accelerated rebel victory is a more likely outcome. Even with the addition of heavy anti-tank and anti-air weapons will likely prove difficult for seizing contested cities. As Syria shifts from a guerrilla war to a conventional civil war, rebels would greatly benefit from improved unit cohesion, their own artillery capabilities, and even armored and mechanized units—none of which can be as quickly or easily provided as man-portable and crew-served antitank and anti-air weapons.
Providing heavier weapons, though, would proliferate sophisticated military capabilities to a rebel front that includes a variety of radical groups opposed to U.S. interests and allies. Croatian arms shipments, which the Saudis bankrolled and the U.S. facilitated, already fell into the hands of non-FSA Islamist and jihadist groups. It is doubtful that the new shipments, or hypothetical heavy weapons shipments later, will fare differently. While the United States can directly control distribution of weapons to, say, the rebels it trains in Jordan, without a substantial ground presence of CIA officers or Special Forces troops inside Syria itself, it will have little capability to oversee or influence the transfer of arms inside Syria, where complex dealings and distribution networks between myriad rebel groups will trump American intentions.
In addition to al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, Jabhat al Nusra, and the Iraqi-based successor organization, Salafi jihadist groups such as Ahrar al Sham and other jihadist groups have formed the Syrian Islamic Front entirely outside of the FSA’s already loose chain of command. Additionally, there are non-Salafi Islamist groups that operate both within the FSA and in an alternative Islamist umbrella organization, the Front to Liberate Syria—and this is leaving aside the Muslim Brotherhood groups that operate within and without the FSA.
Compounding those divisions are not merely parochial and political divergences between rebel commanders, but differing sources of funding, with competing political fronts and lobbyists attracting varying levels of self-interested support from regional states. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey’s divergent interests, along with funding from Syrian ex-patriates and private donors to Salafi groups all compound the difficulty of creating a relatively unified rebel front that could best translate new supplies into cohesive combat formations and political influence. As Afshon Ostovar and Will McCants argued, fighters, such as the Salafis, use cooperation and shared goals to build combat efficacy, attract additional donors, and build outsized political influence, even among non-jihadist groups.
Because the United States will merely be adding an additional, competing source of resources, its additional armament is unlikely to promote unity or marginalize unsavory ideologies within rebel ranks. It takes more than money and weapons to effectively wage unconventional warfare. Establishing the prerequisite U.S. ground presence through intelligence and Special Forces deployments to forge a core of cohesive, capable and U.S.-friendly forces may be impractical or unacceptably dangerous and costly. Even then, as Paul Staniland argues, increasing resources to insurgent groups with divergent social and political bases is likely to exacerbate, rather than mend, rebel differences.
Providing small arms and ammunition may seem like a low-risk way to provide more than lip-service to the administration’s chemical weapons red line and keep rebel forces afloat and engaged in Washington’s hoped-for political transition to end the civil war. Unfortunately, barring a major shift in regime thinking, a negotiated transfer of power seems unlikely, and a continually divided rebel front is unlikely to want or be capable of receiving such a transfer. Furthermore, better furnishing the rebel groups cannot deter, destroy, or secure Syrian chemical weapons, which would require military capabilities far beyond what Syria’s rebels have to offer.
Nor will American funding and supplies decrease the incentive for regional powers and individual donors to stop funding whatever rebel factions advance their specific interest. Indeed, desire to maintain effective and loyal proxies may provide incentives for some donors to step up their levels of support and re-orient toward groups that will not be receptive to U.S. overtures. Ultimately, marginalizing jihadist groups will require not just pro-U.S. rebels, but ones willing to combat their influence in post-Assad Syria. As post-Gadhafi Libya demonstrated, even relatively small jihadist presences can continue to thrive if more moderate forces are unwilling to risk blood and treasure combating them. The same dynamics that force Libya’s transitional government to tread lightly around or even cooperate with radical groups in Benghazi will likely afflict Syria regardless of U.S. support. Though providing arms to Syria’s rebels may seem an easy way out for an American administration under immense pressure, the odds are stacked against U.S. assistance reversing the political or military fortunes of Syria’s rebels, or those of American interests in Syria.