Have The U.S. and Europe Helped Arm and Empower Islamist Militants in Syria?
Nouri Fonas and I, March 9, 2011. We found these boxes of ammuntion in the destroyed Rajma base, along with 60mm mortar tubes from WWII. Most of the weapons used by rebel forces were captured from Gaddafi's army, including my AK-47, FN FAL, and DShK machine gun.
One of the primary arguments against arming the Syrian rebels is that their lack of organization and centralized command means that the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist militants and terrorists in their ranks. This argument is based on a combination of various influences – legitimate concern, an inability of CIA and State Department analysts to think outside the cubicle, groupthink in policy circles, and a natural aversion to such a politically risky policy.
This timidity and lack of leadership will ensure one thing: that Islamist militants get weapons.
And he who controls the weapons controls the revolution.
There are six reasons why the Syrian rebels must be supplied with arms and ammunition from the U.S., Europe, or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) through the Syrian National Council (SNC) before it is too late:
- The rebels will get weapons from other sources. It is in our interest to buy influence and favor with them by supplying the weapons ourselves.
- Syrians will become more religiously radicalized the longer the war continues, as the suffering and death tend to make people more religious during war and potentially susceptible to extremist ideologies. The sooner the rebels receive the weapons, the sooner the war will end, reducing the impact of this phenomenon.
- Without conventional weapons the rebels may have no choice but to resort to bombings, including suicide bombings. This will spur radicalization, spread knowledge of explosive methods and technology, and turn Syria into a training ground for a new generation of terrorists.
- Islamist militants will be among the first to die in the war anyway because they actively seek martyrdom. Even those with second thoughts at least believe that God will protect them, which significantly diminishes their capacity for self-preservation on the battlefield. I witnessed this on occasion when I was fighting in the Libyan civil war.
- Supplying weapons through the SNC will allow the SNC to control the flow of weapons and ammunition to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other rebel groups. Conditions can be placed on the SNC for the receipt of arms and its members can be held accountable for which rebel units receive weapons. Foreign advisers can also be on the ground and blacklist certain units from receiving weapons as a condition of supplying the SNC.
- Most importantly: Islamist militants are very good at acquiring weapons on their own through networking with terrorists and insurgents from Iraq and elsewhere in the region. By not supplying the rebels ourselves we are increasing the importance and influence of Islamist militants by making the Islamists the main players in arming the revolution.
I initially wrote these six points in response to an inquiry on a LinkedIn forum by a colleague asking for my opinion on arming the rebels because of concerns that they are becoming radicalized. A week after I wrote my response on the forum, Reuters published an article that confirms this is exactly what is happening in Syria.
From the Reuters article “Rebel rivalries and suspicions threaten Syria revolt”:
“Many say Islamist groups, from hard-line Salafists to the exiled Muslim Brotherhood, bankroll many battalions that share their religious outlook”
“Fighters say private donors, possibly frontmen for Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have funneled millions of dollars to favored rebel groups. Many suspect the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis are getting the lion’s share”
“Leftist politicians and other opponents of Islamists are trying to counter that influence by funding rival armed bands”
“We felt forced into aligning with the Free Syrian Army because it is the most widely known. If it gets recognized, we’ll get foreign aid,’ says the Idlib rebel Mahmoud.”
A few days later, another Reuters article revealed that the rebels are being forced to resort to bombings since they don’t have enough guns and ammunition:
“We are starting to get smarter about tactics and use bombs because people are just too poor and we don’t have enough rifles”
“You are going to start seeing an escalation as we improve our techniques of bomb-making and delivery.”
Recently there have been a series of terrorist attacks by Islamist militant groups within the Syrian revolution. These groups are gaining influence and becoming key players in the revolution because they can claim tactical victories against the regime. Rebels using conventional and guerilla tactics have been far less effective lately against Assad’s overwhelmingly better equipped military, supplied by Russia.
Unless the rebels are supplied with the weapons and ammunition they need to wage an effective insurgency, the revolution will be increasingly in the hands of the Islamist militants.
By not supplying the SNC with arms, the U.S. and Europe are essentially arming and empowering these Islamist militants.
We are on a collision course with the realities of the Arab Spring. It is time to take the wheel and do what we do best in the Middle East: buy influence with weapons and money.