Moral obligation, regional stability and future political interests are all key concerns in the debate that has been going around media and diplomatic circles in recent weeks regarding whether to arm the Syrian opposition.
Many fear such a move will just shift the violence up a gear into an all-out civil war, and the injection of arms will not bode well for the future stability of Syria. Many who take such a point of view cite Libya and Iraq as proof of the destabilizing effect of weapons, especially in heterogeneous societies.
On the other hand, some analysts feel such a course of action is essential to tip the balance in the favor of the Syrian opposition and save innocent, defenseless civilians from a steady crackdown by the Syrian regime, which is in its eleventh month and has cost 7,500 lives according to modest figures released by the United Nations.
Meanwhile, Russia continues to supply arms to the regime.
For months now, nations supporting the uprising have been at loggerheads over intervening in Syria. A coalition of pro-opposition countries dubbed the “Friends of Syria” met last weekend in Tunisia, the ground zero and gold standard of the so-called Arab Spring, and emerged with little in the form of consensus. Neither humanitarian corridors, which has been in the debate for months now, nor a decision to arm the opposition appear to be any bit closer after the weekend, leaving some people disappointed.
But Turkish political analyst Nuh Yilmaz says expectations about the conference were unrealistic.
“[The conference] was positive because this meeting, I think, will prepare the ground and serve as a base for upcoming actions that will be regarded as positive by the Syrian people,” he said.
With no consensus on arming the opposition, one country at least has chosen to go it alone. Saudi Arabia, which left the Tunis conference out of apparent frustration at what it perceived as the gathering’s “inactivity," is apparently providing the opposition with arms. According to journalist and analyst Abdel Wahab Badrakhan, external provision of arms to the Syrian opposition is nothing new, though Saudi Arabia’s rhetoric on the issue has become stronger. More recently, Saudi’s close ally Qatar also called on the international community to provide weapons to the opposition.
The reluctance among other Friends of Syria countries to follow suit is, among other reasons, due to the fear of weapons ending up in the hands of extremists. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, for instance, voiced this concern to CBS News over the weekend. When asked why the US has been reluctant to supply the opposition, Clinton replied, “We really don’t know who it is that would be armed…We know al Qaeda [leader Ayman al-] Zawahiri is supporting the opposition in Syria. Are we supporting al Qaeda in Syria? Hamas is now supporting the opposition. Are we supporting Hamas in Syria?"
Yilmaz highlights another concern over arming the opposition. “Most likely it will turn into some kind of arms race because different countries most likely will arm different groups. That will create further tragedies within the country,” he said.
But the fact remains that weapons are reaching opposition members, and some, including Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Jonathan Schanzer, believe that since Saudi Arabia is supplying arms, “Those who receive the weapons will likely be at least amenable to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam that has spawned dangerous Islamist movements worldwide.” This, he warns, may lead to another generation of jihadi fighters, as occurred in Afghanistan following the 1979 invasion by the Soviet Union.
Schanzer criticized the US administration for, what he sees, effectively ceding power to Saudi Arabia over the decision to intervene in Syria.
Badrakhan, however, believes that fears of some opposition groups gaining a military advantage over others are overblown. “It is not the same case as Libya,” he said. “In Libya it was clear that there were armed groups independent from each other and were armed by different parties.”
“[In the Syrian case] although one cannot overthrow the possibility of something like this happening, in reality this is not priority to any country to arm one group,” he added, stressing that the focus is to arm the Free Syrian Army, rather than individual groups.
With scant media presence inside the country, it will be difficult to determine the validity of these concerns.
Whether other countries join Saudi Arabia and Qatar may be revealed later this month, at the next Friends of Syria conference.
Nadine Elali contributed reporting.