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Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Shlomo Brom advocates arming the Syrian rebels to bring Assad down

Hastening the End to the Civil War in Syria INSS Insight No. 418, April 17,
Stein, Shimon and Brom, Shlomo

The uprising against Assad's regime that began more than two years ago has
so far taken a toll of more than 70,000 dead, over one million refugees who
have fled Syria, and a larger number of refugees within the country, and
there is still no end in sight, whether through political or military means.
On the ground, the situation seems to be at an impasse. The regime, still in
control of the large cities, the coastal region, the mountainous Alawi area
in the west, and the transportation arteries between them, faces divided
rebels who have managed to take charge of most of Syria’s territory,
especially the rural areas in the northeast and south. Assad’s army
continues to rely on foreign political, military, and economic aid,
especially from Russia, Iran, and its protégé Hizbollah, as well as China,
which offers Syria primarily political support. The rebels receive aid from
Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the Gulf, Turkey, and apparently several NATO
members, but they lack a unified command and there is no unified control of
the aid. The result is that every nation assists the element(s) close to it
politically. Thus, Qatar provides support to the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi
Arabia to the Salafists, and Turkey to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Free
Syrian Army, and the West provides limited support to the Free Syrian Army,
consisting of the less Islamic nationalist elements. The Arab League
decision to recognize Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the National Coalition,
as the Syrian representative was a symbolic act, important in the attempt to
discredit the Assad regime, but it is doubtful the move can do little more
than boost morale or effect any decisive change in the balance of power on
the ground.

Absent a decision, the humanitarian disaster will only worsen as the numbers
of dead, wounded, and displaced spiral. But beyond the humanitarian aspect,
there are also some important strategic implications. The longer the civil
war lasts, the stronger the jihadist Islamists among the rebels grow, thanks
to the influx of foreign jihadists, some of whom have extensive combat
experience, good organizational skills, and high motivation. This will have
ramifications for Syria’s future in the post-Assad era. The continuation of
the crisis and its becoming an ethnically based civil war will make it all
the more difficult to reestablish a strong central government, and increases
the possibility of Syria's collapse and its becoming a failed state where
various active factions are a permanent fixture. In such a situation, the
likelihood that chemical and other strategic weapons will fall into
extremist hands also increases.

Nor is the crisis not contained within Syria’s own borders: it is spilling
over to neighboring countries, placing them before growing economic,
military, and political difficulties with the potential for undermining
stability in those regimes and thereby destabilizing the region as a whole.
The refugees are burdening Jordan and Lebanon, deepening ethnic tensions,
and taking a heavy economic toll on already fragile economies.

Israel has so far done all it can to avoid involvement in Syria, justifiably
so from its perspective. Israel has no real ability to affect events within
Syria; furthermore, Israeli involvement carries the risk of generating the
opposite of the intended result, thereby increasing the threats emanating
from Syria. However, certain situations might force Israel to intervene, for
example, the attempt to transfer strategic weapons to Hizbollah, which
according to foreign sources resulted in an attack on a convoy within Syria,
and repeated fire, apparently unintentional, toward the Golan Heights. The
regime is losing control over the Syrian-held Golan Heights, resulting in a
risk to UNDOF, the UN force observing the disengagement. Some of the UN
units have already left, leading to the possibility UNDOF will collapse
altogether. Thus Israel could find itself in a very different reality than
the one extant since 1974, and the Syrian-held Golan Heights could become a
base for jihadist and Palestinian extremist attacks on Israel.

Some in Israel may feel that the current civil war in Syria serves Israel’s
interests because it keeps Syria from representing a serious military
threat. However, Syria stopped being a significant military threat to Israel
some time ago, whereas the ongoing civil war can only increase the risk of
military threats of a different kind, if Syria becomes a failed state, which
would impact negatively on regional stability. Thus, it is in Israel’s
interest that the civil war end as soon as possible and that a central,
moderate Islamic regime take control of the country. The question then is:
how does one break the military stalemate between the regime and the rebels
in favor of the moderate rebels, thereby creating an opportunity for a
decision in the military struggle or, alternately, promoting a political
resolution? While Israel cannot do this, it is important that decision
makers in Israel understand the options and deliberate them with allies in
the international community.

In order of escalation, the options for breaking the stalemate are: lifting
the West’s embargo on supplying the rebels with arms, establishing no-fly
zones for the Syrian air force, and providing the rebels with aerial

Despite the counter-arguments, it appears that lifting the embargo on
weapons shipments is the least problematic of the options. The claim that
weapons are liable to fall into the wrong hands, i.e., to jihadists, because
no one can distinguish definitively between the groups of rebels and control
the weapons’ final destination is a weak argument. In the current reality,
the Islamist rebels already enjoy weapons supplies from the Gulf states,
whereas the other groups have no regular sources of weapons. In addition,
over time there is better information on the different groups and with an
appropriate intelligence effort a much better picture can emerge. It has
also been argued, including by a senior European diplomat, that "lifting the
embargo would give Russia, Iran, and perhaps other nations an excuse to
increase their weapons deliveries to the regime and thereby contribute to
more fighting." However, these nations hardly need any more excuses to
supply arms to the Syrian regime, and instead, the supply of high quality
arms such as anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons designed to compromise the
areas in which the regime enjoys superiority could effect an essential
change in the current balance of power. The objection to lifting the embargo
apparently has less to do with the stated reason and more to do with the
fear of a slippery slope created by the commitment to help the rebels
militarily. There has already been some erosion of the West’s objection, but
the call issued by France and Britain to the EU to lift the embargo has not
(yet) received sweeping support from other EU members. (In a recent
interview the French President qualified the French call to lift the
embargo.) Conversations with European diplomats suggest that as a unit, the
EU is in no rush to lift the embargo.

In a speech at an Arab League summit in Doha, al-Khatib called on NATO to
expand the geographical defense area provided by the Patriot batteries
deployed in southern Turkey to Syria’s northern regions now under coalition
control. A favorable response on NATO’s part to al-Khatib’s request would be
the first step in establishing no-fly zones for the Syrian air force. But
NATO’s objection to such a step without a Security Council resolution
granting it international legitimacy remains firm, and there is little
chance that Russia or China would rescind their opposition to such a

Given the reluctance to implement no-fly zones, the option of more active
military intervention to support the rebels is obviously not on the table.
Burned by the experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States in
particular and other NATO members in general are cautious about involvement
in yet another military endeavor without a clear exit strategy and a low
risk assessment.

In conclusion, the extension of the fighting in Syria does not serve Israel’s
interests. Lifting the embargo on supplying the moderate factions with
weapons would seem to be the only realistic option for breaking the military
stalemate, thereby helping bring an end to the crisis that is not yet in
The Institute for National Security Studies • 40 Haim Levanon St. • Tel
Aviv 61398 • Israel • 03-640-0400 • e-mail: info@inss.org.il

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