By Sharmine Narwani
“The weapons of choice in (today’s) new conflicts are not big-ticket items like long-range missiles, tanks, and fighter planes, but small and frighteningly accessible weapons ranging from handguns, carbines, and assault rifles on up to machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and shoulder-fired missiles,” explained William Hartung more than a decade ago in an article entitled The New Business of War.
“Because they are cheap, accessible, durable, and lightweight, small arms have been a primary factor in the transformation of warfare from a series of relatively well- defined battles between ‘two opposing forces wearing uniforms’ to a much more volatile, anarchic form of violence,” says Hartung, now director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy in Washington DC. “More often than not, today’s wars are multisided affairs in which militias, gangs, and self-anointed “rebels” engage in campaigns of calculated terror, civilian targets are fair game, and the laws of war are routinely ignored.”
“The ready availability of small arms makes these conflicts far more likely to occur, far more deadly once they start, and far more difficult to resolve once the death tolls mount and the urge for revenge takes hold.”
Hartung could have been describing Syria today. And no – the anarchic, violent rebels he describes in his article do not appear everywhere else in the world except in Syria. They are the Syrian prototype.
Tens of thousands of Syrians killed, millions displaced as a result of violence in their direct environment. Would these figures be so wretched if there were no armed rebellion? Most certainly, no.
Since early 2012, the Syrian death toll has increased at least tenfold – from around 6,000 to 60,000 – as rebel supply lines opened up, borders became more porous and the militarization of the conflict was accepted in the mainstream.
The more protracted a conflict, the increased likelihood that a “culture of violence” will develop, further contributing to illegal and dangerous behaviors that most often target vulnerable civilian populations and cause a general breakdown in human rights conditions.
Says security expert Edward Mogire, the “proliferation and easy availability” of these weapons “exacerbate the degree of violence by increasing the lethality and duration of hostilities, and encouraging violent rather than peaceful resolutions of differences.”
Sending weapons? Forget about that peace plan then.
So what’s stopping regional and international players from slapping a total arms embargo on Syria to prevent more death and destruction? Russian President Vladimir Putin, an ally of the Syrian government, last week again called for a halt to weapon flows “to all sides of the conflict.”
Yet calls to increase weapons to Syria’s disparate militias still continue every day from other members of the UN’s Security Council. France, the UK and the US (FUKUS) – who claim they do not directly arm the rebels – have collectively provided hundreds of millions of dollars in “non-lethal assistance” to – er – make them more lethal.
Hiding behind a much-touted public posture of “non-intervention,” all three have in fact “intervened” militarily in the Syrian conflict – from training rebel forces, to providing them with military intelligence in preparation for battle, to actually coordinating and transporting weapons into the hands of militiamen.
Washington’s laughable excuse for helping transport weapons into the highly volatile Syrian military theater is that “other states would arm the rebels anyhow.” Whines one US official to the New York Times: “These countries were going to do it one way or another…they weren’t asking for a ‘Mother, may I?’ from us.”
Thought: You could sanction them, instead of helping them load the truck.
“They” are ostensibly Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two thoroughly undemocratic Islamist regimes who are aggressively vying for the upper-hand in the Syrian rebellion by channeling money and weapons into the hands of their preferred rebels. Washington has military bases – official and secret – in both countries, and therefore an awful lot of leverage.
The FUKUS states like this set-up. First, they get to maintain a sliver of deniability for weaponizing Syria. Second, all three western states are bankrupt on paper and have recalibrated their 21st century military strategies to utilize third parties to fight irregular wars against political foes.
FUKUS is fully aware that these weapons transfers are contributing to death, destruction and displacement inside Syria. They are ranking members of NATO, which says the following about the dangers of weaponizing conflicts:
“The illicit proliferation of small arms and light weapons (SALW) has a detrimental impact on regional security, fueling and prolonging existing conflicts thereby destabilising regions and exacerbating international security. Many of the security threats that we face today as organisations, states and regions can be linked to the pervasive problem of illicit SALW. Terrorists, organised criminal gangs, insurgents and even pirates, often find their crimes much easier to commit due to easy access to these weapons.”
Breaking out of the “Revolution Trance”
Two years into the Syrian conflict, there are no signs of “popular, peaceful protests” against the government of Bashar al-Assad. At this point, there’s little point in arguing whether there ever was significant enough opposition to unseat Assad through mass protest – a feature of other successful Arab uprisings.
Today, the only players inside Syria to present any kind of sustained, effective opposition front are armed rebels. Neither the domestic nor external Syrian non-military opposition play a major role in anyone’s calculations, except for rubber-stamping some political decisions.
Many opposition activists, who have no where else to turn in their quest to unseat Assad, still uncomfortably rally behind the rebels as their last shot to affect regime-change. But the fact is that there would be no sustained rebellion without massive direct assistance from foreign nations.
Is there a “revolution” when the entire Opposition-Operation is coordinated on the Jordanian and Turkish borders, orchestrated from Doha, and funded by the Americans, Saudis, British, French, Qataris and other smaller players?
No, of course not.
The Syrian “revolution” – whatever many intended for it to be – is one large foreign-backed regime-change special op. With all the various interests vying for dominance inside this space, it is no surprise that the “rebellion” has disintegrated into violence and chaos.
Even in early 2011, it was obvious that regime-change would need some help in Syria. From the first weeks, gunmen shot out at security forces from within peaceful protests; snipers targeted vulnerable civilians in areas where these deaths would have maximum impact; groups of armed men attacked army checkpoints, on and off-duty security forces, and pro-government civilians.
The first external observers in Syria – the Arab League – saw rebel groups bombing civilian and military targets, pipelines, infrastructure. The next lot of monitors – from the United Nations – warned rebels to desist in their looting, destruction of public and private property, assassinations, kidnappings and vandalism.
It took a very long time to concede that there are foreign jihadists in the battle – a story that went from “regime lies!” to “there are only a handful” to “yes, okay, a few dozen” to “thousands” today.
We recognize that the majority of the militias are ideologically Islamist, with an increasing number declaring their partiality to sharia law and an Islamic state in secular Syria.
We see with ever increasing frequency that rebel groups are carrying out crimes against humanity: summary executions, torture, kidnappings, human shielding – but we caveat it with “not as much as the regime,” although we have no independent measure of this.
Since 2011, Syria has seen armed militias entering villages, towns and cities that are not their own and stripping them bare. Shops are shuttered in these areas, remnants of burned vehicles dot the roads, factories are looted and the spoils of war are sold off to purchase more supplies – or for profit. Revolution isn’t what all of them are after. Some seek their own turf; others want power, money.
You’ve seen the videos of these militias. Unlike in 2011, these are now verifiable rebel videos – they have their own websites and they film their own atrocities. You wouldn’t want them in your town.
We can’t even really get to know them well, such is their fondness for militia-musical-chairs, which they play every time an opportunity arises to trade-up to better-funded, better-armed groups. This fluidity gives us pause – there’s also no way to track their weapons.
Question: Are there any decent rebels out there at all? Answer: Who cares? Weaponization is Syria’s biggest enemy – the bane of all Syrians today. Weaponization is the single biggest factor contributing to the escalation of violence in this conflict and, more importantly, is the single biggest factor precluding its peaceful resolution.
Good guys? Wrong question. On the same day that US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that there were “moderates” among the militias, America’s top military man shot him down:
“About six months ago, we had a very opaque understanding of the opposition and now I would say it’s even more opaque,” said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey. “I don’t think at this point I can see a military option that would create an understandable outcome,” he cautioned, adding that Syria presented “the most complex set of issues that anyone could ever conceive, literally.”
Unless, of course, one wanted to foment a protracted, destabilizing conflict to split Syria into pieces and ensure even more chaos. With no guarantees about the flow and exchange of deadly weapons inside the country, Syria would be a classic war with no end:
“Guns rarely go silent after wars end,” said Human Rights Watch in a report on weapons in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq. “To the contrary, the widespread availability of small arms in many post-conflict countries has greatly added to the death toll. Particularly where security is weak, former combatants have not been disarmed, and abusive actors have not been held accountable for past behavior, a situation of lawlessness can emerge where civilians are at grave risk.”
Next week, a number of states backing a military solution inside Syria will meet to ramp up the conflict – the US, Turkey, France, UK, Jordan, the UAE, Germany, Italy, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. On the table is a discussion to send further weapons into Syria.
Why? To protect civilians, to stop the humanitarian disaster, to stem the refugee problem, of course.
This article was first published by Al Akhbar English on April 10, 2013