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Denise LaponDenise Garcia is the Sadeleer Research Faculty and Associate Professor at the Political Science Department and the International Affairs Program at Northeastern University in Boston. She is the author of Small Arms and Security – New Emerging International Norms, Routledge 2006/Reprinted 2009; and Disarmament Diplomacy and Human Security – Norms, Regimes, and Moral Progress in International Relations, Routledge 2011/reprinted in 2012.

Why Arming the Syrian Rebels is not the Answer

Denise Garcia

President Obama’s administration decision to arm the rebels in Syria is misconceived. It neglects history’s lessons and will further harm the United States’ international reputation. Sending arms does not buy allegiance. The President reluctantly gave in to pressure and agreed to send arms and ammunition to a limited number of vetted rebels after two years of avoiding involvement in the Syrian conflict. Navi Pillay, The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that  93,000 people have died. What started out as peaceful civilian protests in Dara’a in March 2011, turned into brutal repression against protestors by the regime. Since then, President Bashar Al-Assad has committed atrocities against his own people particularly through the use of explosives and aerial bombings of densely populated areas. The decision to transfer arms to the Syrian rebels, however, reflects an inability to learn from history, not only from the United States but also from its European and Middle Eastern allies, many of whom support and aid the decision, and who have themselves been transferring arms to Syrian rebel groups.

President Obama could have maintained his initial preference to refrain from supplying arms. Some may argue: why not help and assist legitimate armed groups fighting for freedom against oppression and tyranny? The answer is: arming groups is usually a short-sighted decision, taken using incomplete information. What seems a good idea in the short term, as history repeatedly shows, ends up being ruinous for countries on the receiving end. As the decisions to provide arms to non-state groups are usually carried out covertly, there is little accountability and possibility of transparency. Out of the sights of public scrutiny, presidents and higher echelon of governments adopt arms transfers. Preferable in the case of Syria is a full humanitarian intervention, preferably with the acquiescence and participation of its neighbors, with a complete non-fly zone supported by the U.S. and Europeans. This would be much more costly than simply sending arms to vetted rebel groups. The catalyst for the U.S. decision to supply arms to rebel groups was evidence suggesting that President Al-Assad had used chemical weapons, and a “red line had been crossed”.

Crossing Red Lines and the Decision to Transfer Arms

Strong international legal norms exist against the use of chemical weapons stipulated by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The use of chemical weapons by Syria coincided with the annual meeting of High Contracting Parties to the Convention in June 2013. The United States ratified the convention in 1997 and is therefore a party. This Convention has nearly universal adherence and hence sets strong international normative standards of non-use. Syria is amongst the only five countries in the world that has not signed nor acceded to the Convention, in company with Angola, Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan.[1] This Convention represents a significant cornerstone of international weapons law and international law in general and is considered customary law by jurists and the International Committee of the Red Cross alike. This means that even countries that have not agreed to be bound by its norms; i.e. who have not ratified, must follow its proscriptions of non-use; in other words: non-use of chemical weapons is an international norm recognized universally. Because of these reasons, the alleged use by Syria caused uproar in the international community and is to be strongly condemned and repudiated as it demonstrates the most barbaric behavior that was prohibited by the long history of use of chemical weapons that preceded the CWC. However, it does not justify the American decision to send arms to the rebels.

The decision came with uneasiness by the President who is cautious about further entanglements in wars abroad, especially in a moment of fragile economic recovery. President Obama also hoped that the decision was going to buy him time to build further platforms for negotiation.

After only one month after the announcement, there is a certainty that no quick impact can come out of the United States decision to transfer arms. It is unlikely that the decision to give small arms and ammunitions will make a difference against the heavily armed military of President Al-Assad. The Americans are counting on Saudi Arabia to provide heavier weaponry, namely, shoulder fired surface-to-air missiles (known as MANPADS).  However the problem is not the type of weaponry or the amount. The decision to transfer arms is problematic because it is usually mistaken to provide arms to non-state armed groups or rebels, as in the case of Syria, for the reasons explained here. Of course, this is highly controversial and there are opinions on both camps; transfer or not to transfer arms beyond the state-to-state realm? Transferring arms within the state realm is sometimes equally problematic as well, in many instances, such as Russia delivering arms to the President of Syria.

The United States is not alone in providing arms. Many of its allies and especially countries in the Middle East have been active in creating a complex web of arms transfers. Yes, with power comes responsibility; with world power and with regional power alike. Many countries and close allies to President Obama are obstinate that the United States has to intervene in the conflict in Syria and evoke their “responsibility to protect” civilians caught in the fire; and protect the human rights of populations subject to abuse by their own governments. Many of the regional allies of the United States in the Middle East are financially capable and have enough political capital to orchestrate a humanitarian military option. The United States is overstretched and has enough domestic problems these days; long gone are the days where the United States was the sole major power. Therefore, the responsibility for a conflict that heavily affects neighboring states principally lies with them to tackle. The transfer of arms is not the last resort, it is plain misleading and unfounded. The problem is that there is no unified Arab position so far.

Two Reasons not to Provide Arms

First: History’s Lessons

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is charged with vetting who shall receive arms. Why should an agency in the United States decide who is a legitimate actor to be on the receiving end? Historically, the CIA has been involved in funneling other arms pipelines (in Afghanistan through Pakistan is the classic case). All throughout the Cold War, there were arms pipelines to many of the proxy conflicts with disastrous consequences for the receiving country, the regional neighbors, and often for the United States. The same pattern of supply of arms and calamitous consequences can be seen in Africa, Middle East, Central America, and South-East Asia during the Cold War with ramifications that extend to present day.

Two related problems are particularly pernicious here. One is the abundance of weapons in these societies after the conflict is over. This plagues efforts for reconstruction and reconciliation for decades after the conflict has ended. Second is how unsafe arsenals are in countries in conflict or in post-conflict situations. When the United States decided to invade Iraq in 2003, against the will of the international community and international law precepts, the most hazardous situation was not the imaginary weapons of mass destruction but how poorly guarded the heavily armed arsenals were from years of supply during the war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s (to which the United States was a big arms supplier). These unsafe arsenals served to arm the multiple insurgencies, who quickly pillaged them, after the 2003 invasion. To this day, the consequences of all these misconceived actions sadly plague the recovery in Iraq. Many other examples could be given from conflicts across the world even more to the point, for instance Libya and Mali, recently.

Arguably, the CIA took short sighted decisions about arms transfers, to different actors with damaging consequences. At one stage, the Mujahedeen, of which Osama Bin Laden was a member, was once a legitimate actor to receive arms. In general, countries that were armed present, to date, fragile post-conflict recovery situations with tenuous possibilities of lasting peace. This is partly due to the excess of arms circulating in their societies after misguided arms transfers.

Second: International Law and Global Reputation

The United States has always been adamantly opposed to any global restrictions on its freedom of transferring arms to non-state armed groups. This is because it wants to be free to choose which groups are legitimate to receive arms in any given conflict. After the Cold War was over, countries started worrying about the excess of arms across the globe and about the illicit trafficking of arms that had grown considerably in the late 1980s. Efforts started then to create new international norms on how to deal with excess arms. Within the United Nations, meetings were held and the first multilateral effort to create a politically binding common position on what to do with excess arms was agreed in 2001. From this start, the United States was steadfastly resistant to inclusion of any clause, in an international agreement, that would limit its autonomy to decide regarding arms supplies to non-state actors. Since then, however, research on international norms on arms has shown, that most countries would like to have a commonly agreed position on prohibiting transfer of arms to non-state actors, or armed rebels or groups. Most countries are opposed to arming rebels because it is hard to see who is on the right side and difficult to predict and deal with the unforeseen consequences later. The international community, through the United Nations, has moved slowly on globally agreed standards for more transparency on arms transfers in general, not only within the state-to-state realm, but especially within the state-to-non-state ambit. More recently, countries have agreed on an Arms Trade Treaty (April 2013), the first legally binding international agreement establishing concrete global norms on arms transfers, signaling progress in disarmament diplomacy and for international relations in general. The Treaty, although a welcome and ground-breaking step in international law, has no provisions restricting the supply of arms to non-state actors, largely due to opposition from the United States, and acquiescence by other states. However, it sets commonly agreed rules on limitations of transfers based upon International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law criteria. Even though the Treaty lacks an express prohibition, it will put all issues of arms transfers in the light of more general broader restrictions and rising new international normative standards that will arise from the Treaty in the years ahead.

At least in paper, the European Union has agreed on prohibiting the transfer of arms to non-state actors. Other regional groups, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) also prohibits the transfer of weapons to non-state armed groups: “Member State shall ban, without exception, transfers of small arms and light weapons to Non-State Actors that are not explicitly authorized by the importing Member” (paragraph 3.2 of its Convention on arms). The prohibition on arms supplies to non-state groups by the Europeans appears to be informing the disinclination of certain members of the European Union to transfer arms. The decision not to renew the arms embargo to the opposition in May 2013 but not to transfer arms is also a signal that EU has not yet achieved a unified position vis-à-vis the Syrian case. The International Court of Justice (ICJ), the main international judicial court of the United Nations system, passed a seminal decision in 1986, where it instructs states not to aid and arms rebels in other countries. This decision was taken as a result of one of the many proxy war conflicts that took place during the Cold War. The ICJ therefore signals that countries should be more than cautious when interfering through covert decisions to aid, finance, and sustain insurrection in other countries.

Despite the American opposition to setting limits on supplying the rebels arms, a global norm that prohibits the transfer of arms to non-state actors could be emerging. The United States has jeopardized its own international image at great cost for itself in the past years. The disregard for international law and commonly accepted global norms and principles does not pair well with a highly globalized interconnected world where operations that are at odds with public accountability, seem to becoming quickly outdated. States disrespect international law at their own peril and forget history at high cost to them and millions of innocent people. The transfer of arms to the Syrian rebels seems to be a great way to do both.

[1] Israel and Myanmar are signatories who have yet to ratify.