Why the World Must Prepare to Arm Syria's Rebels

Bashar al-Assad is winning, and while it isn't yet time to supply opposition fighters, it might be soon.

Syria Feb7 p.jpg

Member of the Free Syrian Army on patrol in the western border town of Zabadani / Reuters

REYHANLI, Turkey - Here on the border between Turkey and Syria, evidence abounds that Bashir Al-Assad is winning.

Despite widespread rumors, no organized effort is under way to arm rebel fighters. The opposition "Free Syrian Army" remains a poorly equipped and loosely organized militia unable to stop a Syrian army still loyal to Assad. At the same time, a sectarian conflict between Assad's ruling Allawite minority and Syria's Sunni majority is intensifying.

In northern Syria, Sunni and Allawite villages have divided into pro- and anti-government enclaves, according to fleeing refugees. At checkpoints, government security forces order people to pray to the country's Allawite leader. If they refuse, they are deemed Sunni subversives. And Sunni army defectors say Allawite officers threatened them with execution if they refused to fire on demonstrators.

"I had to do it," a remorseful 24-year-old Sunni soldier who defected this week told me. "If I don't fire, someone will kill me."

At Friday's "Friends of Syria" meeting in Tunis, the United States and its allies should demand cease fires that would allow the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged enclaves. And they should pressure the predominantly Sunni Syrian opposition to unify, gain firmer control of rebel fighters and more aggressively court Allawites, Christians and other minorities to join them.

If the bloodletting intensifies in the weeks ahead, Washington should allow Arab countries to give the rebels limited amounts of military equipment -- such as anti-tank missiles and secure communication systems -- that if properly used would do more harm to Assad's army than Allawite civilians. Some analysts warn that arming the rebels could spread and intensify the conflict, but a sectarian war is already underway, foreign intervention is unlikely and military pressure must be brought to bear on Assad.

In refugee camps and makeshift hospitals here, disillusioned Syrians are begging the outside world to act in conflict that has claimed an estimated 6,000 lives and become the bloodiest of the Arab Spring uprisings. Ayam Kurdi, a former Syrian Army captain and member of the Free Syrian Army, said the fighting will gradually become more protracted, chaotic and bloody.

"If there is no support or help for the situation in Syria, then Syria will become another Somalia," he said. "They have their duty to the human beings of Syria."

Kurdi and other opposition members argued that the Syrian Army will quickly collapse if a safe haven is created in northern Syria and opposition fighters receive anti-tank weapons. His prediction, though, is hugely optimistic.

Divisions may exist within the Syrian Army, but no one knows their true extent. The defecting soldier said that over the last three months roughly 50 to 100 soldiers had disappeared while he served in the southern city of Daraa. Some deserted, he said, while others were apparently detained or shot.

"Some of them try to run," he said. "Some of them refuse to shoot."

Syrian civilians, meanwhile, say the Free Syrian Army is not capable of defeating Assad's military.

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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