Could Arming the Rebels Bring an End to Syria’s Suffering?

Yet, not even the horrors being visited on an effectively defenseless civilian population by the Syrian regime’s mechanized assault on the rebel-held neighborhood of Baba Amr in the city of Homs look likely to move Western intervention in Syria from the “impossible” column to the “inevitable” one. Hundreds appear to have been killed over the past five days as regime forces have used tanks, rocket fire and helicopter gunships in a brutal effort to reestablish control over neighborhoods that had been under rebel control since late last fall. But while Western publics wince at the spectacle of a hopelessly unfair fight, their governments have no appetite for intervening in a sectarian civil war with no clear end game and rapidly multiplying perils.

Syria’s escalating civil war breaks down on largely sectarian lines, resonating with a regional polarity that has Saudi Arabia and allied Sunni monarchies at one end, and Iran’s Shi’ite theocracy at the other. Regional sectarian divisions are at their most volatile in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon, where sectarian partisans are already actively assisting their kin in Syria, exacerbating the fragility of each country’s domestic political balance.

So, even if Russia and China had not vetoed U.N. Security Council demands for an end to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s repression, Western powers remain reluctant to repeat the Libya experience in a conflict that may already have more in common with the breakup of Yugoslavia than with the Arab Spring. As brutal and dramatic as the regime’s assault on Baba Amr has been, Homs is unlikely to be Benghazi, where NATO warplanes flew to the rescue at the eleventh hour. Right now, it’s looking more like Grozny, the insurgent Chechen capital flattened by then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the fall of 1999 to stake his nationalist claim to the Russian presidency.

Direct intervention is still largely ruled out by Western—and even Arab and Turkish—policy-makers. But the option of indirect intervention, through arming the rebel forces to even up the fight, is gaining traction in a policy debate fueled by the emotionally intolerable ineffectiveness of options currently being exercised. Sanctions and scolding have not restrained Assad, and Russia and China vetoed the Security Council attempt to demand a halt to the regime’s military campaign against the opposition. Assad may have told the Russians he’s willing to talk about reform with a loyal opposition, but he’s not about to call off the assault on armed opposition groups and the communities in which they operate.

Turkey is taking a lead role in efforts to coordinate a united effort with Western governments to force the issue of getting humanitarian supplies to the besieged Syrian communities. But it remains to be seen how willing to confront Assad the Turks will be if he proves unwilling to allow such assistance. Arming the rebels, however, offers no quick solution to the plight of Homs, or to the wider Syrian conflict. Instead, it’s an acceptance that the war will be protracted and bloody. And it’s on the agenda by default because no other options seem to offer much hope of staying Assad’s hand.

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