Arguments that the West should avoid arming Syrian rebels in order to forestall wholesale slaughter or forced exile of Alawites, such as that advanced recently by Joshua Landis, deserve careful consideration and also need to be placed into proper context.

By responding in March 2011 with deadly force to what was initially peaceful, nonsectarian protest, the regime of Bashar al-Assad tried but failed to smother public dissent in its cradle. By continuing to employ lethality even as it became clear that the combination of gratuitous violence and social media were spreading the uprising virus-like, the regime ensured that Syria’s sectarian strains would stretch and snap. This was because the regime would have to rely on predominantly Alawite military units, armed intelligence operatives, and criminal auxiliaries to put down an uprising that was mostly, although far from exclusively, Sunni Muslim.

By employing terror tactics against civilian populations the regime has accomplished two objectives: it converted a largely peaceful uprising it could not contain into an armed rebellion it can better (although not effectively) handle; and it implicated, in the eyes of some of its enemies, the entirety of the Alawite community and some of Syria’s other minorities in the survival strategy and tactics of the Assad-Makhluf family business. Indeed, the regime’s greatest triumph to date has been to attract elements of al-Qaeda and other jihadist criminals to Syria to serve as its enemy of choice. The effective collaboration of the regime and the Nusra Front to turn principled protest and armed resistance into a sectarian free-for-all presents the greatest of all challenges to Syrian nationalists and their supporters.

The deadly dance of these putative enemies—the Assad regime and the Nusra Front—has paid a huge dividend to each by effectively paralyzing the West as Syria dissolves into stateless anarchy, threatening all of its neighbors with the implantation of a Somalia-like situation in the heart of the Levant. The blatant sectarianism of each, the codependency of the ruling family and this al-Qaeda affiliate, and their joint success in enhancing the salience of raw sectarianism in the struggle for Syria have encouraged any number of commentators to conclude that giving anything to the opponents and victims of the Assad regime beyond humanitarian assistance, nonlethal aid, and heated rhetoric (including United Nations General Assembly resolutions) would only make things worse.

In fact, the worst of the nightmare scenarios is already staring us in the face: a family-based regime armed to the teeth and fully supported by Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, fanning the flames of sectarian hatred it has long since ignited to save itself and, if necessary, burn Syria to the ground rather than yield power to anyone. One can imagine scenarios. Yet one can actually see what is happening.

Assad has, of course, a golden opportunity to expose the bankruptcy of this thesis by submitting in the very near future to the political transition formula outlined by the June 2012 Geneva agreement reached by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. He has reportedly designated a negotiating team. This team’s task would be to create, on the basis of mutual consent in talks with the Syrian opposition, a transitional governing mechanism that would receive full executive powers from the family regime and its current order-taking government. Assad knows that neither he nor those of his associates who have authorized or engaged in sectarian bloodletting will survive the process of mutual consent. Yet if he wishes to refute conclusions drawn from that which he has done in the full light of day since March 2011, he will submit willingly and unconditionally to the Geneva process seemingly revived by the United States and Russia.

The chances of Assad and his colleagues voluntarily stepping aside so that the Syrian state can be saved, governmental institutions preserved, fighting stopped, the hungry fed, the sick and wounded healed, refugees and internally displaced returned to their homes, and reconstruction, reconciliation, and reform launched, are probably nil. Iran and Hezbollah are all-in with preserving the family business. They have taken the measure of other external actors and have concluded they can win. Although their regard for Assad and his associates falls far short of laudatory, they see the regime as literally irreplaceable in terms of their interests. And while they may have some reservations about the jeopardy in which the regime has quite deliberately placed Syrian Shias (among others) by pursuing a blatantly sectarian survival strategy, perhaps they appreciate the inevitability of the sectarian dimension and its costs given the tools of violence actually at the disposal of a regime doing their bidding.

Has the regime in fact succeeded in creating a sectarian free-for-all that effectively neutralizes any inclination in the West to oversee and participate in the arming of vetted opposition units?  In a characteristically thoughtful Syria Comment article Professor Landis concludes that sectarian pogroms being committed in and around the coastal cities of Tartus and Banyas by pro-Assad regime militiamen may ultimately lead to a general confessional bloodletting in Syria. According to Landis, "Ethnic cleansing may turn against the Alawites, as easily as it may against Sunnis. If Sunni militias win in their struggle against the regime and penetrate into the Alawite Mountains, Alawites will flee before them, rather than be vanquished…[I]n all likelihood they will run to Lebanon, which is no further than an hour’s drive. The border is open…[A]though opposition leaders plead for more and better weapons to bring them a speedy victory, Western leaders have held back. The fear that three million Alawites could flee into Lebanon, destabilizing the country for decades, undoubtedly plays a role in Western reticence."[Emphasis added]

The word "undoubtedly" in the foregoing sentence actually introduces an element of uncertainty about the validity of the thesis that Western fears of a general Alawite stampede into Lebanon account in part for the reluctance to arm selected Syrian rebels. Were there evidence that such a scenario actually weighs on the minds of Western statesmen and helps to keep them from arming Syrian rebels, a simple factual assertion without "undoubtedly" would have sufficed. This writer is aware of no such evidence. Yet if a scholar with the credentials of Landis is offering a cataclysmic scenario of mass Alawite flight to Lebanon as an argument against arming rebel units, it merits consideration.

Anti-arming argumentation in the White House and the capitals of Western Europe has centered to date on several assertions, the most prominent of which (until recently) was that arms and ammunition for rebels would "further militarize" the situation in Syria. The United States appears to have dropped this regrettable phraseology which, for months on end, mystified, frustrated, and infuriated Syrians on the receiving end of the Assad regime’s unremitting terror campaign against civilian populations. Corollaries to this assertion have been that Western arming of Syrian rebels could (consistent with the Landis thesis) deepen Syria’s sectarian divide (presumably by giving Sunni rebels better means with which to avenge regime atrocities at the expense of Alawite civilians) and might somehow undermine the prospects for a negotiated settlement consistent with the Geneva agreement of June 2012 (an argument favored by Europeans upholding an arms embargo on Syria whose effects are totally one-sided in favor of the regime). Some have also argued that arming rebels might help them win too quickly, meaning in a manner that could cause the precipitous collapse of the institutions of state before arrangements could be made for their preservation, presumably sparking an Iraq-like insurrection among unemployed military personnel and civilian officials.

Landis appears to be offering a new twist on the argument that arming rebels will exacerbate sectarianism. Perhaps the specter of three million Alawites decamping to Lebanon will be seized upon by statesmen whose desire to see the Syrian crisis settled diplomatically has persuaded them to date not to arm rebels; a new, more honorable, and perhaps (in light of regime depredations) less embarrassing rationale to persist.  Yes, declining to arm, equip, and train rebel elements through the channel of the Supreme Military Council hypothetically might lead, in the fullness of time, to an Iran-Hezbollah-regime military victory. Yet a regime victory would surely obviate, would it not, the prospect of three million Alawites landing in Lebanon: something Landis describes as the "sort of population transfer [that] could be as disruptive to the region as was the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948."  Using this alarming scenario as a standard one can imagine people in high places thinking that a regime victory—one that surely would entail retribution on an unimaginable scale—would be a small price to pay.

One may safely stipulate, given that which the regime has set in motion, that literally anything is possible in Syria: even something as patently unlikely as three million Alawites picking up and heading for Lebanon. Indeed, the Assad regime has already driven more than a million Syrians from the country, and several million more into internal displacement. Hypothetical end-of-world scenarios can be fascinating. Yet facts should be compelling. The facts being created on the ground by the Assad regime should not become the acceptable norm while we become enthralled by scenarios whose authors would not likely assign a high probability of coming to pass.

It is clear that President Barack Obama and all of his Western European colleagues earnestly hope that a genuine political transition in Syria can occur soon, ideally as a result of the apparent Russian-American agreement to resuscitate the 2012 Geneva accord via an international conference the United Nations hopes to convene in June 2013. Yet the odds against a negotiated political transition are steep. The United States may well be obliged, sooner rather than later, to oversee and participate in the arming of selected rebel units, certainly through the Supreme Military Council and ideally in conjunction with the establishment, on Syrian territory, of an alternate government standing for the kind of nonsectarian, rule of law values that Landis and all who truly care about Syria would want upheld. The objective would be to shape, in conjunction with partners, the kind of outcome in Syria that surely cannot completely preclude score settling, including vengeance killings with sectarian overtones, but would indeed prevent the kind of low probability cataclysm mooted by Landis from taking place. Without employing the word "undoubtedly," one may surely hope and pray that planning for a post-Assad international or multinational stabilization force, one whose mission would include protection of vulnerable populations, is either complete or in a very advanced state.

There are no silver bullets for ending the Syria crisis quickly and cleanly. Valuable time has already slipped away. Yet if it is sectarian slaughter and displacement we fear—and we should fear them greatly—ending the tenure of a ruling family that has actually engaged in these practices is job one.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the former special advisor for transition in Syria at the US Department of State. Photo credit.

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