Why the World Must Prepare to Arm Syria's Rebels

By David Rohde

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.

"They are not the solution," said one Syrian, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They are not so strong, they are not so organized. You cannot say that the revolution will be won by them."

The ugly truth is that Assad is calling the world's bluff and winning. Russia and China are shamefully coddling their authoritarian proxy. The United States and its NATO allies lack the political will to mount a Libya-style air campaign. Turkey expresses outrage, but appears unwilling to create a safe haven on its border.

On the ground here, the Syrian opposition is impressive. Former businessmen, construction workers and teachers have established a network that smuggles satellite phones, foreign journalists and video cameras into northern Syria. They upload videos to YouTube from their refugee camps and wait for the world to respond.

While American intelligence officials believe some hardline Islamists have infiltrated the opposition, the vast majority of Sunni refugees interviewed here talked of creating a tolerant, democratic country free of sectarian rifts and corruption. They lamented Syria's status as an international pariah and cited moderate Muslim countries like Turkey and Malaysia as their model.

"We want to live a dignified life," Mostafa Masri, a 31-year-old car mechanic turned refugee, told me. "We want a liberal country that has all kinds of sects."

The broader Syrian opposition, though, remains deeply divided. Wounded opposition members here expressed disdain for the Syrian National Council, the most prominent of several exile groups. They accused council membvers of living comfortably in London and Istanbul while doing little to help fighters in Syria.

"This council only represents itself, they are searching for chairs and authorities," said Khalid Ibrahim Aslan, a 32-year-old man recovering from a leg wound he received at a demonstration. "The rebels inside Syria are the leaders of the revolution."

In the end, a central question is whether Syria will become the next Lebanon, Bosnia or something different.

From 1975 to 1990, weapons and cash from other countries flowed into Lebanon prolonged a brutal civil war. Neighboring states backed country's myriad militias, creating a regional war and extending Lebanon's agony. An estimated 140,000 people died.

In Bosnia, a wholly different dynamic emerged. A UN peacekeeping mission and humanitarian aid efforts prolonged the conflict in some ways instead of ending it. Arming Croatian and Bosnian forces turned the military tide in 1995 and brought the Serbs to the bargaining table after 100,000 people perished.

The U.S., the Arab League and Turkey must proceed slowly in Syria. Rebel demands for no-fly-zones and safe havens should be rejected until the opposition unifies, includes more non-Sunnis and shows military cohesion. Syrians, not foreign troops, must lead the fight.

In interviews here, increasingly frustrated Syrians insisted they were up to the task.

"When I recover, I'm going back with a weapon," said Aslan, the 32-year-old man shot at a demonstration. "No more peaceful protest. We have to protect ourselves and our people."

If the brutality continues in the weeks ahead, Arab nations, with the approval of the U.S., should give him the weapons he needs to end Assad's rule.

This post also appears at Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/02/why-the-world-must-prepare-to-arm-syrias-rebels/253562/