International Responses to the Syrian Civil War

On June 13, the Obama Administration formally announced plans to provide “small arms, ammunition and potentially anti-tank weapons,” through the CIA to rebels in Syria. The likely recipients are the Free Syrian Army, but exact details on the recipients remain unclear. The decision to arm the rebellion, following months of “internal debate,” was made in response to a “high confidence assessment that chemical weapons have been used on a small scale by the Assad regime in Syria.”  Despite the decision, however, many experts argue that this assistance might be too little, too late, while others still oppose any American military involvement in the conflict.

A number of observers argue that supplying the rebels with small arms will be ineffective at this late stage of the crisis. Shadi Hamid writes that “the only way to help the rebels regain the advantage and force the Assad regime to make real concessions is with a credible threat of military intervention through airstrikes against regime assets and the establishment of no-fly and no-drive zones.” Similarly, Lt. Maj. Gen. (Ret.) David W. Barno argues that “the provision of lethal aid to the rebels is unlikely to be enough to turn the tide against Assad.” A no-fly zone will be the next military option under consideration, but in Barno’s view is also “the first step on a descending staircase toward deeper U.S. military involvement in the Syrian civil war.” These viewpoints echo those of Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who said in early June that an escalation of violence could have been avoided had the U.S. supplied arms 18 months ago, when they were first requested. As such, other experts propose more direct military action, such as the imposition of a no-fly zone or the provision of anti-aircraft missiles. However, these options are seemingly more complex than similar operations conducted in Libya in 2011 or Turkey in 1996. According to a Stanford University study of no-fly zones published in the Journal for Strategic Studies in 2004, “the effectiveness of no-fly zones is highly dependent on regional support” – an essential component missing from the situation in Syria. International deadlock on how to mediate the crisis has been exacerbated by competing geopolitical rivalries and the increasingly sectarian nature of foreign support.

Arguments against arming the rebels reflect uncertainty on possible outcomes to the crisis, as well as a lack of public desire in America to become involved militarily.  The Syrian opposition is not homogeneous, and because it is difficult to track the final destinations of weapons offered, they could end up in extremist hands. Robert Gates, former Defense Secretary, has warned that “direct U.S. intervention in Syria’s civil war would be a mistake.” Differences in opinion at the highest levels of the U.S. government have also delayed the decision to arm the rebels. Even following classified briefings explaining President Obama’s plan to Congress last week, four U.S. Senators “want more debate in Congress” before military aid is approved, with Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) arguing, “The president’s unilateral decision to arm Syrian rebels is incredibly disturbing, considering what little we know about whom we are arming.” Other members of Congress expressed similar concerns about the cost and effectiveness of such a decision, with Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) stating, “it’s not clear what the end game is.” A bill sponsored by Rep. Richard Nolan (D-MN) seeks to bar military assistance “to any of the armed combatants in Syria absent express prior statutory authorization from Congress.”

Despite this hesitation, on Saturday the U.S. participated in the “Friends of Syria” discussion in Doha, Qatar, with ten other countries. The meeting focused on how to provide better assistance to the opposition, with a particular focus on encouraging a possible peace conference in Geneva, known as “Geneva II.” Egyptian newspaper Al-Wafd published a list of demands submitted by the Free Syrian Army, the most important of which is a request for human-portable anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles. Nonetheless, the meeting concluded without further details of the nature of military assistance each participant planned to provide.

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