France and the United Kingdom are pushing for Europe to arm Syrian rebels. France in particular has a deep familiarity with the complex inner workings of the Levant, but the United States’ reticence toward arming the rebels helps elucidate the quagmire likely to ensue should foreign powers attempt to actively push the Alawites out of power in Syria.
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The European Union has a set of sanctions against Syria that rolls over every three months. In February, the European Union voted to allow non-lethal aid shipments to the Syrian rebels, but France and the United Kingdom are now arguing that the European Union should extend lethal aid to the mostly Sunni rebels. The next vote on the arms embargo is scheduled for May, but French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and British Foreign Secretary William Hague hit the media circuit Thursday to appeal for a faster decision on the matter. British Prime Minister David Cameron even suggested that if they cannot get the unanimous support required for an EU-wide repeal of the arms embargo, interested parties may consider unilateral arms transfers.
Arming the rebels does not require an overt political decision. Since December, the United States and Europe have allegedly been overseeing weapons transfers from the Gulf Arab states through Croatia, which is not a member of the European Union. Weapons from the Gulf Arab states are also making their way into Syria via Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
But states wishing to support Syria's rebels face a complex reality: These states want to ensure that the weapons they supply end up in the hands of secular-minded rebels and not in the possession of the many radical Salafist-jihadist fighters that have made their way to Syria. But the more the rebels become disillusioned with Western support, the more influential the Salafist-jihadist fighters become, since they at least produce results on the battlefield. The dilemma over how to control the flow of weapons has become intertwined with humanitarian arguments urging defense of the rebels against what is being portrayed as a barbaric regime. This building sense of urgency is what has led to the accelerated push from Europe to end the arms embargo.
But a decision to overtly arm rebel forces would be fraught with political risk. Once the battle devolves into clan warfare, alliances will turn fickle, and the allure of the weapons-providing benefactor will rapidly dissipate once the immediate objective of evicting the al Assad clan from Damascus is achieved. Regardless of any eventual political settlement, this conflict has already unleashed sectarian forces that will likely end up absorbing the northern Levant into civil war — as they have done numerous times in the past.
This is a lesson that the French and British should remember well from their colonial legacies. France, in particular, can appreciate the amount of labor and high level of cunning required to play Levantine factions off one another to achieve a balance of power. Ironically, the French are playing the reverse role in this version of the conflict. During the 1920-1946 French Mandate, Paris balanced against the Sunni Ottoman Empire by backing an array of ethnic minorities in Syria against the Sunni majority. The French expended considerable effort, in particular, in legitimizing the Nusayris, or Alawites, in Syrian religious society and in facilitating their migration from the coastal hinterland to the urban interior. This time around, the French are backing Sunni rebels against the ruling Alawite minority.
There is another bit of irony to consider here. The Europeans have experienced the dragging weight of an empire. Rudyard Kipling described this best in his foreboding poem, Recessional, in which he said, “All our pomp of yesterday is one with Nineveh and Tyre!” In other words, it may be easier for more developed nations to get caught up in the moment and pursue a far-flung battle, but the gains from that battle can swiftly be crushed and buried under the weight of local warring forces.
The United States, while something of a neophyte in global policing, seems to be developing a deeper appreciation for the corrosive nature of foreign interventions. Though pressure has been building for Washington to do more to aid the rebels, the U.S. administration has been far more reticent than the Europeans toward this end, preferring to emphasize diplomacy and non-lethal aid as a suitable course of action, at least overtly, for now. The United States' experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq are most certainly affecting Washington's thinking about its next steps in Syria. It remains to be seen whether European pressure will influence the United States to step up its own support for the rebels.
History will play a vital role in this conflict. The United States' recent history in the Islamic world will drive its reluctance, while for some Europeans, a distant history as former colonizers may revive an old and dangerous pursuit of glory. For the Syrians themselves, a conflict-ridden history is repeating itself in very predictable and familiar ways.