Should the West Arm Libya's Rebels?

Western officials hinted that they might on Tuesday

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On a day when Muammar Qaddafi's forces reversed the Libyan rebels' westward advance, talk has turned to whether the West should arm the ragtag opposition as it contends with Qaddafi's better-armed security forces.

During a summit on Libya in London today, Libyan opposition leader Mahmoud Shammam called on the international community to arm the rebels. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he was "ready to discuss" the option outside the framework of the U.N. resolution authorizing military intervention in Libya, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that the resolution had overridden the U.N.'s arms embargo in Libya, making it possible for a country to engage in a "legitimate transfer of arms" if it saw fit. Qatari and British officials also appeared willing to entertain the idea, The Guardian says, though one British official told the BBC he didn't think arming the rebels would be legal given the arms embargo.

Analysts, meanwhile, are divided on the question of whether to arm the Libyan rebels. Here are the arguments on both sides


  • Three Reasons Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell recommends providing at least small arms to the rebels because 1) the opposition will probably get weapons anyway from places like Egypt, 2) the West will have more influence with the rebels--and thus more control over how events transpire in Libya--if it arms them,  and 3) the rebels "may not be able to protect themselves--let alone defeat Qaddafi's forces--without" arms from the West.
  • We Must Be 'Ruthless' Now that the West has entered Libya, it must be ruthless, argues Roger Cohen at The New York Times: "Arm the resurgent rebels. Incapacitate Qaddafi. Do everything short of putting troops on the ground."


  • Arms Will Make Things Worse Regional analyst Fawaz Gerges tells the BBC that arming the rebels would be like "pouring gasoline on the fire," adding, "The last 10 days have shown very clearly that there is no decisive military option. Libya is a much more divided country than most of us had imagined."
  • Mission Must Be Limited If we arm the rebels, we can't talk of a limited mission in Libya, claims FireDogLake's David Dayen. "We simply do not have the kind of information about the rebels ... to make informed decision about the consequences" of arming them, he concludes.
  • U.S. Has Bad Track Record The U.S. has a "dark history" of arming rebel groups in countries like Afghanistan, Argentina, Honduras, Chile, Nicaragua, and Cambodia, claims The Atlantic's Max Fisher, a former writer for the Wire. "The most common outcome of U.S.-funded rebellions has been to create instability and violence that, whether in the form of intractable insurgencies or low-level sectarian fighting, tends to last far longer than whatever political conflict they were meant to resolve," he writes. .
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.