The Case for Arming Syria’s Opposition

The moral case for arming Syrians seeking their freedom has become overwhelming. The world has rarely seen such courage, fortitude and restraint. Despite an unrelenting crackdown by the Assad regime, brave Syrians have kept up their civil resistance campaign for 11 months. Despite systematic attacks by Syrian armed forces killing thousands and wounding tens of thousands, the resistance has, until recently, largely refrained from taking up arms. Surely few people are more entitled to the means to defend themselves in the face of escalating regime brutality.

Arming Syrians seeking their freedom would have its costs. Bashar al-Assad will brand it as outside intervention and wrap himself in the Syrian flag. His efforts to rally especially uncommitted Syrians in defense of Syrian sovereignty will further divide an already-riven society. And it may not force the Assad regime from power anytime soon.


Yet that is what is desperately required.

Saying that Assad has lost legitimacy and ultimately will fall is cold comfort. The longer this struggle goes on, the more militarized it will become. The more militarized it becomes, the more Syria’s future will be dictated by who has the most guns, not who gets the most votes. Look at the Libyan Transitional National Council’s struggle to control that country’s militias, and contrast that with the more democratic evolution in Tunisia.

And the more militarized the Syrian struggle becomes, the greater the opportunity for al-Qaeda. Events in Somalia and Yemen show how al-Qaeda thrives on chaos and violence. For the sake of preserving human life and a democratic future for Syria, the Assad regime needs to go now.

So why is the Assad regime still in power? Because it enjoys the support of the Syrian army (which, despite some defections, still supports the regime); the Sunni business community (particularly in Damascus and Aleppo); and the Alawites and other minority communities (including Kurds, Christians and Druze). These groups must be persuaded to break with the regime and join the opposition.

The Syrian National Council needs to be at the forefront of this effort. It would help unify the badly divided council. It would also increase the council’s credibility within Syria and the international community as a unifying, inclusive, cross-sectarian political force.

If the effort succeeds, it will not only topple Assad but also help create a stable, democratic Syria in which all sectarian communities feel secure and strive together to build a common future. The post-Arab Awakening Middle East desperately needs such examples of cross-sectarian pluralism and cooperation. Such a Syria would help avoid destabilizing neighboring Iraq and Lebanon, which in different ways are also striving to provide democratic examples to the region.

The United States, the Arab League, Turkey and the rest of Europe need to work closely with the Syrian National Council in developing this approach and to echo the council’s message publicly and privately to these three groups.

l To the Syrian army: If you break with Assad now and support the council, you will have a role in the new Syria; if not, you will be held responsible for the regime’s crimes by Syrian and international tribunals.

l To the Sunni business community: Assad is going down, and the sooner he does, the sooner profitable business relations with the dynamic Turkish business community can resume. (The Turkish government urging Turkish businesses to send this message privately to their Syrian counterparts could be especially helpful.)

l To the various minorities, especially the Alawites: There is safety, security and a role for you in the new Syria if you break with Assad now, but this will be harder to ensure if you don’t.

Finally, the United States needs to organize the international community in developing a concrete plan to help a post-Assad Syria reform its economy, stimulate economic growth and train its young people in the skills of the 21st century. Business, nongovernmental organizations, charitable foundations and universities of the Arab states, Europe and the United States should not just be involved but also lead. This plan is needed now to further motivate the key pillars of the regime to split away and support the Syrian National Council.

If it works, this approach is better than a Libya-style military intervention. Libya was a one-off case. We and our NATO allies did it because we could. Libya had fewer than 6.5 million people and an army that Moammar Gaddafi purposely kept weak. Its major population centers were along the Mediterranean coast, within range of NATO ships at sea and NATO air bases.

None of these advantages are present with Syria. Outside military intervention would produce a narrative that Western powers had once again toppled an Arab dictator. A better narrative for the Syrian people, the region and the United States is that the Syrian National Council lead the Syrian people in overthrowing a tyrant.

To strengthen these political messages, we should begin now to build public and international support for arming the Syrians seeking freedom. The United States will need to take the lead so that such arming does not become a vehicle for a proxy war in Syria between competing regional states but instead contributes to building a stable and democratic Syria for all its people.

Stephen J. Hadley, an Atlantic Council Board director, and principal at the RiceHadley Group, was national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration. This piece originally appeared on The Washington Post.

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