Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Big Arms Story: Is Syria flooded with advanced weapons?

Recently there has been much stir in the media about arms deliveries from Croatia to the Syrian rebels, apparently sponsored by the US and Saudi Arabia.  What follows attempts to put these deliveries into perspective.  It seems that their significance has been magnified beyond what the evidence will support.  Part of this is probably the normal excitement surrounding a discovery.  Part of it may be something worse, an attempt to scare Western powers from supplying the Syrian resistance.  Neither the quality nor the quantity of weapons delivered justifies any such reaction.


Some reports speak of 'advanced weapons' or make such a big deal of the story that they might as well be saying that.  Well the weapons are not particularly 'advanced'.  To the extent that they're reasonably current, it's not clear that matters much.

The two weapons systems most often cited are the M79 Osa anti-tank rocket system and the M60 recoilless rifle.  No one has claimed that the Osa is advanced.  Some say it can't penetrate the armor of modern tanks.  Perhaps some rounds developed for the system can do this, but none of the reports has claimed that such rounds were spotted or even that they exist.  As for the M60, it is about on a par with many other recoilless rifles, which don't seem to have 'advanced' very much since the 1950s.  (Here the caveat about modern rounds also applies.)  As for proliferation, in Syria and many other places there is no shortage of other models such as the SPG-9, often sighted in the hands of pirates and terrorists.

The other weapon most often mentioned is the RPG-22, another anti-tank rocket system.  This again is hardly spectacular, nor as advanced as other anti-tank systems frequently encountered such as the Kornet.

All these systems work pretty well in Syria because Syrian armor is on the whole not that advanced.  This means there is little incentive even to obtain the latest and greatest anti-tank systems - they wouldn't be worth the money.  That's another reason to tone down the proliferation hysteria.

What's remarkable here is that none of the reports indicate the arms shipments included any weapons that might indeed be 'game-changers', nor any that preoccupy the West.  These weapons fall into two categories, heavy artillery and advanced MANPADS, in sufficient quantity of course.  The MANPADS are what the West most fears getting into 'the wrong hands', and there's no chance that the CIA or the Saudis would underwrite their delivery.  So there isn't even a prospect that US/Saudi shipments from Croatia or anywhere else would include such material.


Given that the quality of the weapons obtained is no 'game-changer',  intelligent fear-mongering will have to depend on the quantity of arms reaching rebel hands.  Much is made of the scale of the deliveries.  Rather less is made of the fact that they were discovered through Syrian government videos in which - according to one of the trackers -  "large quantities" of captured arms are displayed.

Here there seems to be a certain unwillingness to add 2 + 2.  If 'large quantities' were captured in one seizure - there may have been others - doesn't that raise some question of how much reached or was retained by the rebels?  Yet not one report has asked this.  In addition not one report has ventured any estimate at what proportion of the rebels' requirements - either at current or at 'game-changing' levels - the deliveries would represent.  Probably that's because no one has the slightest idea.  The conflict is widespread, utterly decentralized, and diversified; it's hard to see how one would even go about arriving at such an estimate.  What's pretty clear is that the rebels are having trouble both advancing and holding ground, and no explanation seems much more plausible than inadequate ammunition supplies.

In other words, there really is no reason to suppose that the arms-deliveries from Croatia amount to either a 'flood' or a 'game-changer'.  Indeed given uncertainties about quantity, it's hard to assess their significance for the conflict.  It's easier to judge their implications for proliferation - little to none.  In fact the West's panic about arms getting into the hands of terrorists is a little odd given that the three major terrorist attacks in the West (not to mention almost all minor ones) involved no weapons at all.  Think of 9-11, the London July 7th bombings, and the Madrid attacks

Should the arms have been delivered?  Should they have been tracked?  Here are a few things to consider.

Legality:  Contrary to numerous suggestions, the deliveries violated no embargo or law.  Readers interested in the details will find that the dark talk about  it being 'illegal' deliver to 'non-state parties' is flat-out nonsense.

Given the legality of the shipments, reference to them as 'arms trafficking', which strongly suggests illegality, is a smear.  These are the same people who refer to the rebels 'looting' rather than simply capturing Syrian army supplies.  It's hard to imagine them applying the same term to the arms captures of nice white armies.

Worsening:  Very Serious People sometimes declare, with an air of regretful but great sagacity, that supplying arms to the rebels will simply 'prolong' the fighting.  How so?  The fighting can be prolonged only in three ways:  stalemate, rebel victory, or régime victory.  Supplying arms can hardly do anything but increase the likelihood of rebel victory.  Why would that prolong the fighting?  Tipping the balance in favor of a party that keeps gaining ground hardly suggests a more drawn-out struggle.  On the contrary it seems that not supplying the rebels is far more likely to prolong the war.  Since the rebels are now quite strong and fighting for their lives, not supplying arms could well mean a prolonged stalemate or a prolonged régime victory.

Moreover a régime victory is far more likely to prolong the slaughter, because it would certainly be followed by years of murderous, sadistic repression.  As for the rebels, they haven't shown much inclination to massacres.  Even if that changed, the likelihood of slaughter following a rebel victory is much less.  A rebel victory would end the paralysis at the UN, NATO and EU.  It would also leave Syria's defences in disarray.  In the changed circumstances, several powers would be ready and willing to intervene.  So no matter what the future, it's far likelier that not supplying arms will make things worse than that supplying them will do so.

Journalistic ethics:  The exaggeration about arms supplies to the rebels fits nicely with the pretense that tracking arms shipments is a matter of journalistic ethics.  It has been said that, with so much good stuff 'flooding' in and more to come, tracking won't do any harm.  There is no evidence to support this defense and, if we're going to be ethical, maybe it would be a good idea to err on the side of caution when it comes to depriving Syrians of the means to self-defense.

There is also reference to impartiality and the right to know.  Would these journalists appeal to the same ideals and expose, say, British agents in Afghanistan, or American intelligence sources in Yemen?  Again it is hard to resist the sense that wartime censorship is the province of white people.  When Arabs appeal to it, it's apparently yet another sign they just don't get human rights.

Partiality:  Perhaps these journalists, confusing journalistic impartiality with political impartiality,  think they ought to remain neutral and even-handed, oblivious to whether this harms resistance to Assad.  But as their attitudes to censorship show, they don't actually believe that politics shouldn't influence what you do or don't report.  Their show of journalistic impartiality really shows something else:  that they don't care whether or how much their reporting helps Assad.  This suggests that they are not competent to make moral judgements at all.  No matter what they fear if Assad falls, it's just fear.  If he stays, catastrophic slaughter is certain.  This certainty, for anyone who claims to have a conscience, should outweigh the mere possibilities used to weaken support for the rebels.

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