This House would arm the Syrian rebels

Syria, a relatively small but pivotal Middle Eastern Country, has been on a downward spiral since March 2011 when there were peaceful street protests calling for the President, Bashar al Assad, to step down. Assad responded with force, firing on the protestors in Daara on 21st March, and within a week demonstrations and some clashes in six of the twelve provincial capitals. Quelling Daara with force was followed in late April with violent clashes in Homs which in turn escalated nationwide on April 22 when more than 100 demonstrators were killed across the country.[1] Some among the protestors responded to force with force and formed the Free Syrian Army at the end of July whose organisation was enhanced by defections from the Syrian army.[2] Peace attempts have failed[3] and the country is now involved in a full scale civil war between rebel groups, that want to overthrow the government as inspired by the other Arab spring revolutions, and Assad's government. The civil war is compounded by the fault lines that run through Syria's history, the government is supported by a Shi'ite sect called the Alawites, that have historically been a persecuted minority but under Bashar's father, Hafez who was president from 1971 to 2000, they rose to prominence. Sunnis, the majority, want to return to political dominance, but these are not the only two groups, there are also Christians and Kurds who both have reason to fear a Sunni return too dominance and worry there will be no place for them in a post-Assad Syria.[4]

The European Union imposed sanctions from 10th May 2011 with further restrictions in 2012 preventing any export of arms to Syria.[5] Yet both sides have been armed; the Assad by Russia and Syria,[6] and the rebels by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.[7] Western states, unlike in Libya, have so far been unwilling to take any action. However in March 2013, two years after the start of the conflict, David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and Francois Hollande, President of France urged the European Union to lift its arms embargo but the rest of Europe was unmoved. The Obama administration has so far also been unwilling to take any steps beyond the diplomatic; the White House has overruled a plan to arm moderate groups of the Free Syrian Army that was backed by much of the Washington foreign policy and security establishment including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey, and CIA Director David Patraeus.[8] Should Obama have gone along with the establishment’s plan?

 

Title 
Syria clearly meets the standards for intervention
Point 

The Assad regime has clearly lost its legitimacy and has precipitated a humanitarian crisis in Syria. The February estimate of 70000 killed[1] is up from an estimate of 60000 only a month before,[2] so clearly the violence is escalating. The conflict is also affecting neighbours; refugees have flooded into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and Israel is already believed to have attacked a convoy or research facility involved in chemical and biological weapons development.[3] Clearly the presence of these weapons show how much worse the situation could get if Assad is not overthrown. Not intervening risks the whole region being slowly destabilised and drawn in to the conflict.[4]

[1] Nichols, Michelle, ‘Syria death toll likely near 70,000, says U.N. rights chief’, Reuters, 12 Feb 2012

[2] ‘Data suggests Syria death toll could be more than 60,000, says UN human rights office’, UN News Centre, 2 January 2013

[3] ‘Q&A: Israeli ‘strike’ on Syria’, BBC News, 3 February 2013

[4] Byman, Daniel, in ‘Roundtable: arming the Syrian rebels’, Foreign Policy, 21 February 2013

Counterpoint 

The if the rebels are armed and the regime gets close to losing surely it will simply increase the bloodshed and have greater motive to use its chemical and biological weapons. Therefore arming either side simply increases the potential for killing. A balance of death is not what anyone should be looking for in Syria.

Title 
It is in the national interest for democracies to support those seeking to oust dictators
Point 

Democracies should support moderate groups seeking to oust dictators because the result will hopefully be a moderate, democratic state. This would then be a reliable partner for the future that would be more willing to help engage and resolve the region's problems. But this is not all about being high minded and wanting to promote democracy in the Middle East, arms need to be provided in order to ensure future influence in Syria. We already know that there are jihadis operating in Syria so it is plain that this is a conflict that will eventually have wider implications for the west. If we want to have influence in Syria after Assad is overthrown then we need to begin helping opposition groups. It is in our interest to build up the moderate groups so as to deny support to the extremists; once this is over we would be in a much better position if we have grateful friends on the ground rather than groups who are resentful that we provided fine words but no real help. We don't want to find ourselves having to root out terrorists from the air using UAVs.[1]

[1] Hokayem, Emile, in ‘Roundtable: arming the Syrian rebels’, Foreign Policy, 21 February 2013

Counterpoint 

The west has historically not been good at picking the winner in the Middle East; take its backing of Saddam in the 1980, the Shah in the 1970s, or the mujahideen in Afghanistan. All have either lost power or turned on those who supported them. If we back the wrong group in Syria then we end upon a worse position than backing none at all; the west is already perceived as being pro Sunni and is seen as being partisan rather than attempting to build a broad inclusive democracy for all communities.[1] So backing any group simply undermines longer term western aims to create a democracy.

[1] Yacoubian, Mona, in ‘Roundtable: arming the Syrian rebels’, Foreign Policy, 21 February 2013

Title 
The Free Syrian Army is outgunned
Point 

The Syrian army is one of the biggest armies in the world; it is nothing like the poorly equipped Libyan army that was beaten by western backed rebels in 2011. The government has aircraft, and helicopters that are used to bomb the rebels, and heavy Russian built tanks that are impervious to most of the small arms the free Syrian army has. Providing arms would quickly even the odds; light anti-tank weapons would be effective against Syrian armoured vehicles repeating the success with which Hezbollah employed them when they knocked out sixty Israeli armoured vehicles in 2006,[1] while man portable air defence systems would quickly make the skies too dangerous for the Syrian airforce so protecting free Syrian controlled areas from the threat of attack from the air.[2]

[1] Cordesman, Anthony H., ‘Preliminary “Lessons” of the Israeli-Hezbollah War’, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 17 August 2006, P.18

[2] Doran, Michael, and Shaikh, Salman, ‘Arm the Syrian Rebels. Now’. Foreign Policy, 8 February 2013

Counterpoint 

And what happens to these weapons afterwards? Air defensive systems that can destroy Syrian jets could pose an equal risk to Israeli or western warplanes. While Israel was surprised by Hezbollah's use of anti tank systems that did not stop the Israeli army from ultimately prevailing in the conflict so there is little reason to believe that 'evening the odds' will really alter the outcome of the conflict.

Title 
Would balance the support for Syrian government
Point 

Syria's government has been receiving outside support from a variety of sources; Russia and Iran being the most prominent. Iran has been training the Jaysh al- Shabi, a Syrian government-controlled force modelled on Iran's Basij militia. Far from just providing weapons, both Iran and Hezbollah from Lebanon have been sending fighters to support the Syrian government.[1] The rebels have received some support for Qatar and Saudi Arabia but not to the extent the Syrian government has. Anyone with an interest in the free Syrian cause should realise that they cannot do so simply by sitting on their hands expecting a victory when those doing the fighting are only provided diplomatic support.

[1] Doran, Michael, and Shaikh, Salman, ‘Arm the Syrian Rebels. Now’. Foreign Policy, 8 February 2013

Counterpoint 

Balance in this case would not be a good thing as this would simply mean a much longer continuation of a bloody civil war. The longer the conflict continues the more difficult it is to put Syria back together again when peace finally does arrive.

Title 
Diplomacy is not going anywhere
Point 

The best solution would be a ceasefire between the two sides in the Syrian civil war and a negotiated settlement, but it is clear we are long past the point where this approach stood a chance of success. The United Nations peace effort under Kofi Annan failed in the middle of last year[1] and there has been no progress since. Similarly all attempts to bring pressure to bear throughout the security council have failed as a result of Russia supporting Assad's regime. This leaves the unilateral initiatives to help the rebels. No state wants full intervention as France did in Mali[2] so the only alternative is simply to help the Free Syrian Army. To do so means providing what they need to win the conflict; primarily arms that can defeat the Syrian army. This need not be considered to be exclusive with diplomacy; the intervening state should continue to try to find a diplomatic solution just as before the Dayton accords NATO helped the Croats militarily while at the same time looking to diplomacy to provide an overall solution to the conflict.[3]

[1] Plett, Barbara, ‘Syria crisis: Kofi Annan quits as UN-Arab League envoy’, BBC News, 2 August 2012

[2] See the debatabase debate ‘This House believes France is right to intervene in Mali’.

[3] Hokayem, Emile, in ‘Roundtable: arming the Syrian rebels’, Foreign Policy, 21 February 2013

Counterpoint 

Simply because there is stalemate in diplomacy and on the ground does not make arming the rebels the option that should now be taken, indeed it does not mean that outside powers need to take any action at all. Those with Syria's best interests at heart would remain on the sidelines, provide humanitarian assistance, and encourage new diplomatic initiatives. The response should not be to turn Syria into a rerun of the proxy wars of the Cold War with the west arming be side and Russia the other.

Title 
Sovereignty and non intervention in internal affairs
Point 

It is a clear international rule that nations are sovereign and other states are simply not allowed to be making interventions into another country’s domestic affairs. The UN Charter emphasises “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state”.[1] Within a state only the government is legitimate as the supreme authority within its territory.[2] This is to prevent the bigger and richer powers from doing exactly this sort of thing to obtain the result they want inside another country. This is why Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated "International law does not permit the supply of arms to non-governmental actors and our point of view is that it is a violation of international law," in response to suggestions that the UK would arm the Syrian rebels.[3]

[1] UN General Assembly, Article 2, Charter of the United Nations, 26 June 1945

[2] Philpott, Dan, "Sovereignty", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

[3] Abbas, Mohammed, ‘Russia says arming Syrian opposition would be illegal’, Reuters, 13 March 2013

Counterpoint 

This makes the assumption that the Assad government is considered the legitimate authority within Syria, the Russians accept this, but other countries are less sure. Both the US and UK now recognise the Syrian opposition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people[1] which would mean arming them would be legal in the same way that the Russians consider arming Assad to be internationally legal.

[1] Malas, Nour, and Solomon, Jay, ‘U.S. Formally Recognizes Syria’s Main Rebel Group’, The Wall Street Journal, 12 December 2012

Title 
Arming the rebels would be unpopular
Point 

Ten years after the Iraq war interventions in the Middle East are no more popular than they were back in 2003. Getting involved in Syria would not be popular no matter how small the commitment. In the United States voters oppose the idea of supplying arms to Syrian rebels by 45% against to only 16% in favour, in the United Kingdom opinion is even more opposed; while there are still 16% in favour there are 57% opposed.[1] Clearly arming the rebels would not be popular with voters - there can therefore be no domestic reason for this policy.

[1] Clark, Tom, ‘US and UK public reject stronger military support for Syrian rebels’, guardian.co.uk, 22 March 2013

Counterpoint 

Public opinion is not the decider of what is right and wrong in foreign policy; people are rarely in favour of any kind of action in a volatile international situation. Had public opinion been the decider the allies would have rolled over and let Poland be taken in World War II.

Title 
Unforeseeable consequences
Point 

We do not know where arming the rebels will lead. The most obvious parallel has to be Afghanistan in the 1980s where the United States armed the mujahideen and succeeded in their objective of damaging the USSR through a war of attrition much as the US had suffered in Vietnam. Afghanistan became an albatross around the Soviet Union’s neck.[1] But the US did not win the peace, Afghanistan descended into civil conflict which had a Taliban victory that sheltered Osama bin Laden; US arms in Afghanistan unintentionally lead more than a decade later to September 11. In this case we would be arming a movement that has many jihadi elements that could end up with the weaponry. Other countries such as Turkey are also worried about where powerful weapons such as anti aircraft missiles could end up if provided to the rebels. They fear they could easily find their way across the border to militant Kurds.[2] Other paths that this could lead to are just as bad; for example helping the Libyan rebels lead to the conflict in Mali.[3] In this case the short term consequences could be just as bad. Arming the Sunnis could provoke retaliation from either Iran or Hezbollah who could feel undermined by the move, in the worst case scenario they could even attack western assets in the area.[4]

[1] Hoffman, David E., The Dead Hand: Reagan, Gorbachev and the Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race, Icon Books Ltd, 2011, p.211

[2] Hokayem, Emile, in ‘Roundtable: arming the Syrian rebels’, Foreign Policy, 21 February 2013

[3] Jones, Owen, ‘The war in Libya was seen as a success, now here we are engaging with the blowback in Mali’, The Independent, 13 January 2013

[4] Yacoubian, Mona, in ‘Roundtable: arming the Syrian rebels’, Foreign Policy, 21 February 2013

Counterpoint 

This is a pointless argument; the consequences of inaction are just unknowable. Doing nothing could lead to exactly the same consequences. Alternatively arming the moderates could speed the end to the civil war and the creation of a democratic state.

Title 
Possibility of being drawn into a long drawn out conflict
Point 

Even just providing the rebels with arms risks drawing the powers that supply those arms into the conflict.[1] This is because it gives the intervening power a stake in the conflict. Once weapons have been supplied allowing the Syrian government to reassert control would be a large foreign policy reversal and would damage relations with the Syrian government for years to come.

We need only look at the Vietnam conflict to know that what starts out as a very small commitment can rapidly escalate when the government decides it cannot afford to back down. What starts as just arming the rebels could quickly lead to troops on the ground. Indeed it might require men on the ground right from the start as if we were to be providing heavy weapons the rebels would need training in how to use those weapons if they are to seriously be considered an equaliser.

[1] Byman, Daniel, in ‘Roundtable: arming the Syrian rebels’, Foreign Policy, 21 February 2013

Counterpoint 

The strategic situation in Syria is nothing like that which meant the US felt it could not withdraw from Vietnam. There is no line of 'dominos' that could be knocked over in a row as a result of a victory by the Syrian government. Far from it, some of Syria's neighbours like Jordan may be strengthened by a government victory as it would halt the momentum of protest against rulers in the region. There is also no large scale outside power that would take advantage of Syrian government victory as was the case with the USSR in the Cold War. In this case such a result would mean a return to the status quo, not something the west would desire, but hardly a strategic disaster so cutting losses if the policy does not work would be comparatively easy.

Title 
Would it work?
Point 

The most fundamental question for any policy is whether it would actually work if implemented? In this case it seems to be doubtful that in practice arming the rebels would be enough to allow them to prevail. It will simply be helping to even the odds; providing enough arms to prevail over a fully equipped army that is supplied by Iran and Russia would require a truly colossal effort. No one is seriously going to consider providing M1 Abrams tanks to overcome Syrian armour when there are even concerns about providing anti-aircraft missiles.  Even supporters of arming the rebels such as Senator John McCain say "this alone will not be decisive". All arming the rebels does then is make the government appear to be doing something (in a bad way since it is an unpopular policy), and stick a toe in the water (also bad as that may lead to escalating commitments), and another decision point six months down the line.[1]

[1] Lynch, Marc, ‘Shopping Option C for Syria’, Foreign Policy, 14 February 2013

Counterpoint 

We cannot know whether this policy will work until it is tried. The Free Syrian Army has been remarkably successful so far capturing large swathes of the country and taking the fight to the regime in the capital Damascus.[1] With more sophisticated weaponry to naturalise the tanks, warplanes, helicopters of the regime the Free Syrians may well be able to finish the job.

[1] BBC News, ‘Syria: Mapping the insurgency’, 4 December 2012

Bibliography 

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