The recent decision by the British, French and Americans to supply weapons overtly to the rebels in Syria may offer short-term political kudos, but it is a policy fraught with great risk in the long term.
Politically, the policy is mildly controversial. The support of three permanent members of the United Nations Security Council for what would elsewhere be termed terrorists appears to lend the policy some legitimacy, although the International Court of Justice has long since found otherwise.
Given the five permanent members’ veto power, such an issue is unlikely to trouble them unduly, for all it may undermine their soft power efforts against state sponsors of terrorism and enable charges of hypocrisy to be leveled against them. As is so often charged, the West terms someone whose aims are rejected as a “terrorist,” but describes one whose aims are condoned as a “freedom fighter.” Confusingly, the rebels comprise elements of both in Syria, and their actions are often almost identical.
Far more pertinent, however, is the risk of blowback—weapons being diverted to those not intended to receive them; currently, that is cast as being Syrian Islamists. Although not mentioned, such weapons might also fall into the hands of Hezbollah, whose fighters are also operating in Syria. Yet while concerns over Israel cause the US apprehension, the risks are far wider than merely the northern Levant.
The rebels have already been receiving weapons from the Gulf, where the Sunni governments are doctrinally antithetical to Alawi-led Syria. However, these weapons have mostly been early models, to which counter-measures are already available in the West. Although most have been light weapons, a few more advanced weapons—in particular anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons—have also been supplied from other places, often from the large stocks available after the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Other weapons from this arsenal have already flowed out into sub-Saharan Africa, where coups in Mali and the Central African Republic have been enabled by this newfound capability. Even more have found their way to Egypt, Gaza and beyond.
Yet even while they were receiving Libyan weapons, the Syrian rebels were clamoring for more sophisticated armaments. This is hardly surprising—everyone wants the equipment that might give them the edge in combat—especially as the Russians continue to re-supply the Syrians. Yet the West must be very wary of doing so, for the risks are global.
The mountaintop weapons bonanza in the opening scenes of the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies may seem like a Hollywood fantasy, but it is not far from the truth. The Stinger missiles provided to the Mujahidin in Afghanistan had to be recovered before they leached onto the global black market.
Even the training allegedly provided to the Syrian rebels may prove problematic. There is some evidence that the 1993 anti-air ambush in Mogadishu was enabled by an Al-Qaeda training team, with suspicions that they had previously benefited from US training for the Mujahidin.
Occasionally, this nexus of destruction is exposed in public. The trial of Real IRA leader Mickey McKevitt revealed that he had “established links with Gaddafi and Tamil Tigers,” “was particularly keen on networking with the Chechen forces,” and that “representatives from the Real IRA-affiliated 32 County Sovereignty Movement were sent . . . to make contact with Palestinians.” The IRA’s long-standing links to the Basque terrorist group ETA are reasonably well known, but the arrest and trial of the “Columbia Three” revealed the IRA’s links to the FARC, and to Cuba, where one man had been a liaison. The IRA also had supporters in the Irish diaspora, principally in the US.
Just this one terrorist group had direct links to terrorists in Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, North and South America, the Middle East, Europe and Africa. When secondary contacts are considered, there is no group that does not have access into this network.
Nor were all of these groups ideological soul mates: the arrangements between the FARC and the Tamil Tigers were strictly business. It is therefore not impossible that a US militia group could get hold of a Mistral surface-to-air missile if supplied to a secular Syrian group.
There is one, strange, upside to this: totalitarian regimes are also aware of the potential for blowback. Iranian support for its allies has been measured, and has not extended to game-changing weapons systems. Partly, this is to avoid upping the ante, but mostly it is because with Iranian Kurdish, Baluch, Arab and Islamo-Marxist terrorist groups, the Islamic Republic too is wary of their support backfiring.
It should be noted, however, that if Bashar Al-Assad falls, the militia with the best weapons and training is more likely to be able to exert effective control over the country. This may spare Syria the fate that has befallen Libya, with the democratically elected government at the mercy of gunmen.
Whether Western countries match their words with actual deliveries of weapons has yet to be seen. However, regional countries seem to have ended their previous policy of restraint. Support to the Syrian rebels must be finely judged and tightly controlled, if the West is to avoid being hoisted by its own petard.