American Review

By Jonathan Bradley

The US announced today that it would be providing arms to rebel forces in Syria. The New York Times has the details:

The Obama administration, concluding that the troops of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria have used chemical weapons against rebel forces in his country’s civil war, has decided to begin supplying the rebels for the first time with small arms and ammunition, according to American officials.
The officials held out the possibility that the assistance, coordinated by the Central Intelligence Agency, could include antitank weapons, but they said that for now supplying the antiaircraft weapons that rebel commanders have said they sorely need is not under consideration.


Mr. Obama declared last August that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would cross a “red line” that would prompt a more resolute American response. In an April letter to Congress, the White House said that intelligence agencies had “varying degrees of confidence” that Syrian government troops had used chemical weapons. But the conclusion of the latest intelligence review, according to officials, is more definitive.

The move is one likely to be criticised by both foreign policy hawks and opponents of any intervention whatsoever in Syria. The Times, for instance, reports that "some senior State Department officials have been pushing for a more aggressive military response, including airstrikes to hit the primary landing strips in Syria that the Assad government uses to launch the chemical weapons attacks, ferry troops around the country and receive shipments of arms from Iran." On the other hand, Kevin Drum accuses President Obama of "caving in" to hawks, while Andrew Sullivan decries the move as a "betrayal." "By deciding to arm the Sunni radicals fighting the Shiites in Syria and Lebanon, the president has caved to the usual establishment subjects who still want to run or control the entire world," Sullivan says.

To make some sense of how the situation is evolving, I decided to talk to an expert: the US Studies Centre's lecturer in US politics and foreign policy Adam Lockyer. Adam's published widely on US defence issues, and since his PhD dissertation was about the effects international intervention has on civil wars, I figured he would be ideal to explain the issues involved. Our discussion is reproduced below, edited slightly for clarity. 

Jonathan Bradley: Barack Obama's just announced that he's going to supply the rebels in Syria with arms. Why now?

Adam Lockyer: Because the rebels are on the back foot. Hezbollah has sent troops into Syria, along with arms and ammunition in support of the Assad regime and they're starting to roll the rebels back. And so I think that the Obama administration's concerned that, without support, the rebels might actually lose.

So the Obama administration clearly wants the rebels to win this but America's stayed out so far. Why does America need to be involved at all?

Next month there's going to be a peace conference and at that point Obama needs the Assad regime to at least think they can't win. They don't need to necessarily think they're going to lose but they've got to at least go to those meetings with the mindset that they can't win — they can't defeat the rebels through arms alone: they need some sort of political outcome. And so then when they sit down to negotiations, there could be a positive outcome for the rebels, for Obama, and there could be some sort of cease fire that could lead to peace down the track. Now if Assad goes into that conference with the mindset that he could possible win through arms alone, he hasn't got an incentive there to negotiate.

The US has been involved in a lot of conflicts in the Middle East over the past decade, two decades. Is this one too many?

Obama has been very cautious about getting involved and there is basically zero chance of American soliders being on the ground, on the front line, fighting in Syria — at least at this stage. But it's got to the point where unless the Western community was going to come in support of the rebels, then they might start to lose, they're going to lose ground, and they'll be in a weaker negotiating position at the peace conference next month.

How much of a shift in strategy are we seeing from the Obama administration? Is it something entirely new or were they progressing in this direction anyway?

It's been a very slow burn. So this has been the momentum, this has been the direction that the Obama administration has been going in, but they've been very cautious up to this point. They didn't really want to be here. There's been a few stumbles on the way. The fact that Obama drew this red line that if the Assad regime was to use chemical weapons the Obama administration was going to take a far more forceful hand in the conflict. That then set it up that when the chemical weapons were proven to be used, then Obama had no choice but to take a more forceful stance against Syria. So he kind of backed himself into a corner, but this is not something that he's wanted to do, this is not something the Americans rushed into. If anything, they've been trying to avoid this for a very long time.

When you say that the chemical weapons were a bright red line — there's been suspicion that chemical weapons have been used in Syria for a few months now. When you mention the peace treaty next month, is the chemical weapons kind of an excuse for the US to intervene and even the two sides up a bit, or is it genuinely that the US has finally got enough proof that chemical weapons were being used and now it's decided it can go in?

Well, a bit of both, but it's mostly the peace conference next month. It's mostly why they're supporting the rebels right now. If they had have been looking for any excuse to go storming in to Syria and to support the rebels, then the moment there was any suspicion that chemical weapons were used, the Obama administration would have said there you go, red line's been crossed and we're going to support the rebels. The reason why it's been now is mostly about the peace conference next month.

Despite the — you know, this is big news. But even so, it's just arms. This isn't like Iraq or Afghanistan or even Libya. There's no no-fly zone. Is it too much to think that this is step one of the US being dragged into another conflict in the Middle East? Or is this only the beginning?

From here, the United States has skin in the game. So up to this point they've been supporting the rebels mostly through political means. Now that they're arming the rebels, they've got far more invested in the rebels' victory — at least, to stop the rebels' defeat — and American prestige and reputation is now associated with the rebels. So, therefore, they're going to be in this for the long haul, whereas before this announcement, if the rebels had have disintegrated and the Assad regime had have taken over, then the United States would have lost very little reputation and prestige in the world. Now they've thrown their lot in with the rebels and they have far more to lose.

Is the US able to hand the weapons over and hope for the best or is giving weapons to the rebels going to drag the US in further inevitably?

So what the United States will probably do first of all is just to supply small arms and ammunition to the rebels. This is not really going to drag the United States into the conflict. They're gonna hand these weapons over, they're pretty simple, they're not very sophisticated, and they'll make their way to the front line. They're unlikely though to radically swing the momentum of the battle. What will change the momentum, change the tide, will be things that will negate the advantages of the government: they will be anti-aircraft missiles and they will be anti-tank missiles. Now, they're far more sophisticated, and they'll require the rebels to be trained up before they're able to effectively deploy them. Now that means that the United States is more likely to have to send out their own trainers, their own advisors, and although initially they'll only be located in either Turkey or in Jordan, over time, there's always temptation to become a slippery slope where those trainers and advisors may need to go across into Syria to more effectively deploy them, and then we're on to a very, very dangerous path.

So there's a chance that the US could one day wake up and find itself in the middle of a war.

That's the big fear. And so they've got to go into this with very clear definitions of what they're going to do. And part of that is we'll supply the weapons; if we do supply the more sophisticated weapons, we will supply trainers and advisors, but they must only remain only on either the Turkish or Jordanian side. They can't be allowed to be sucked into the conflict.

Do you think that the recent appointments of Susan Rice and Samantha Power to positions within the administration has altered this at all, or is the timing mostly coincidental?

It's mostly coincidental. I think they haven't had the time really to put their own stamp on Syrian policy. I think most of this is tied up with the momentum of the conflict and the seeming advantage that the Assad regime now has leading into the peace conference, which means that no positive outcome is likely to come from that peace conference.

We've seen a fair number of hawks in Washington saying that the US goverment is not doing enough. Have the hawks won on this? Will they be satisfied by this new announcement?

For the time being I think, yes. Because this is what they've been asking for. They haven't been asking for American troops on the ground; nobody in DC has been asking for that. What they have been asking for is a more robust American support for the rebels, meaning the direct arming of the rebels, and, at least for the time being, I think that will quieten down that section of the supporters of the rebels.

So that's the important question: Will this work?

It depends on what they supply. Now the trick here is to supply things that are going to be of most advantage to the rebels. And this is where it comes into this interaction effect. So what are the things that the rebels need; what is going to give them the biggest bang for the buck? It could be communication equipment, it's much likely going to be anti-aircraft missles and anti-aircraft defence, anti-tank missiles. The problem though there is that these are the things the United States is most concerned may fall into the hands of terrorists and then they're most likely going to be a threat to Americans down the road. So there's going to be more debate, I foresee, in the coming weeks, where on one side, Americans will be saying, This is what the rebels need, and the other side of the coin will be, but if these do fall into the hands of terrorists, they're going to be the most dangerous weapons.

How equipped is the US to assure that the people they're arming are not bad guys, basically? That there aren't terrorists among their ranks, that they're not going to end up regretting the move they're making right now?

This is a big concern. Because while the weapons are in American hands, and even while the weapons are on the Jordan or the Turkish side of the border, the Americans have some sort of control. The moment the weapons move into Syria, the weapons lose all control over who has these weapons, how they're used, and how they're going to be used in the future. And this is a big concern.

You mention Jordan and Turkey. How about other neighbours around the region? How are they going to respond to this — like Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq — what's the response going to be in the region that is not so friendly to US interests?

It's most likely going to be tied up with the United States but also with Israel. And you might see, if there is going to be any sort of retaliation, it might be towards Israel, you know, Hezbollah is still at war with Israel, so that may escalate. But I'd think for the time being, at least for the short term, we won't see a massive, a serious civil war spilling into its neighbours, at least for the short term. As the war continues, you never know.

So just give me your feeling on this. Was this a necessary move? Was it a good move? Or is it something that could have the potential of being a big mistake?

It has the potential of being a big mistake but it's probably a little late coming, too. If it was really going to be about making the balance of power going into the peace conference, it may have had to have come earlier. It may have had to have come in a bigger way. It may be too little, too late to influence the peace conference, in which case, then what's the point?

This article was originally published at American Review