Proliferation specialists can go wrong if they look only at scenarios while ignoring probabilities. Often concerns seem based entirely on imagining some terrible outcome. There's no attempt to determine the outcome's likelihood. This leaves room for a lot of prejudice. In exactly the right circumstances, an ancient grenade launcher may indeed shoot down a 747. That's wildly unlikely to happen. A squadron of Sweden's new Saab JAS 39 Grippens could deliver at least 60 tons of high explosives on a peaceful city. No one worries about that, and no one should. But perhaps, in that case, there's too much concern about the grenade launcher.(*)
It's impossible to anticipate all the scenarios that proliferation monitors might imagine. The most important seem to be terrorism, inter-communal massacres, and 'making things worse' in an ongoing conflict. We'll see if these concerns are reasonable, and what they mean for Syria.
It's a little difficult to understand how terrorism could be such a concern among arms proliferation specialists. The whole trend in terrorist tactics has been to get away from fancy weaponry and move towards simplicity: box-cutters, homemade poisons and explosives, knapsack delivery. Indeed that trend pre-dates 9-11: the devastating Oklahoma City attack used a fertilizer bomb. Even where a wide range of manufactured weaponry is available, as in the Kenya mall assault, the already ubiquitous AK-47 was used: what would have more been achieved with the latest and greatest automatic weapons? Increased security and terror awareness has only made such tactics more attractive.
Yet high-tech weapons in the hands of terrorists remain an obsession. The most popular bogeyman seems to be the use of MANPADS to bring down a commercial airliner. I have dealt with this at some length elsewhere. Even before 9-11, these attacks were extremely rare outside a war zone, where proliferation concerns are futile because the weapons have already proliferated. Despite their widespread dissemination, not one MANPADS attack has occurred in modern, highly secured post-9-11 airports. MANPADS are costly, very hard to conceal and deploy, not particularly effective against large commercial planes, and almost useless against prize targets such as El Al airliners equipped with countermeasures. Certainly the threat exists, just as the threat of poisonous snakes in your bathtub exists, but it is no premise on which to build policy. What's more, proliferation does little to increase the threat. MANPADS exist and are deployed in their hundreds of thousands all over the world. They are manufactured by many countries, some of whom are not particularly sensitive to nonproliferation issues. A terrorist attack on an airline does not need dozens or hundreds of MANPADS; it only needs one launcher and one or two missiles. The notion that the already small threat can be substantially reduced by controlling the delivery to MANPADS to fighters in Syria or elsewhere is more paranoid than rational.
Someone might argue that proliferation matters, not because terrorists will deploy proliferated weaponry in terrorist attacks, but because it will help them secure terrorist-training bases and secure areas. This too seems wrong-headed.
Terrorist groups do not seek to establish themselves in the Loire Valley or the Catskills where they would be isolated and up against opponents whose weaponry and numbers they could never hope to match. They establish themselves in remote areas such as the Sahara Desert or the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan or the mountains of Yemen, where central authority is already weak and mobile, lightly armed fighters can hold their own against superior forces. Here, indeed, MANPADS might be useful. But here again, nonproliferation efforts are very likely fruitless. In these lawless, areas terrorists easily obtain the weaponry used to hold an enclave. Because they are not fighting pitched battles, they don't need much of anything like sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles. The few black-market systems they require won't be stopped by nonproliferation efforts.
More important, here anti-terrorist measures, if effective at all, consist in comparatively large-scale operations by modern armies who aren't coming on scene with 747s, but with contemporary military aircraft. Syria has shown that even the less than state-of-the-art Assadist helicopters and jet fighters are hardly sitting ducks; French or American backed forces would be far, far less vulnerable. Finally this is a military threat to military forces, not a danger to innocent civilians. So while the threat exists it is easy to blow it out of proportion.
Intercommunal (and other) massacres
Obviously arms proliferation is not sufficient to produce communal massacres; you also need the murderers. But neither are proliferated arms a necessity. Virtually all the most horrific post-World-War-II intercommunal massacres, from India 1947 to Indonesia 1965 to Cambodia 1970 to Rwanda 1994 to (more recently) the Central African Republic, were accomplished without modern weaponry. In Yugoslavia, there was no weapons proliferation; the combatants already possessed abundant arms from Yugoslav arsenals. One must not confuse the real danger of massacres with the remote possibility that arms proliferation will cause or even exacerbate them. There certainly have been and almost certainly will be more such massacres in Syria, but the acquisition of new arms doesn't seem to make the possibility much more likely. Even the most horrendous killings have been carried out with small arms and knives.
Making things worse
Certainly it's possible that foreign intervention can start or exacerbate ethnic, sectarian or tribal conflict: Gaddafi's interventions in Africa may fit that description. But this is not like the worry about MANPADS bringing down an airliner. We pretty well know that certain weapons make possible attacks that would otherwise be impossible; it's just a matter of seeing whether human beings are likely to use the weapons that way. But given what we know about no-tech intercommunal or civil conflict, the idea that arms makes it worse is necessarily speculation. Would the conflict in Sierra Leone have been less brutal without firearms, or would it have been another Rwanda? It's unanswerable. (Few killings in Sierra Leone were conducted with advanced weaponry.) Moreover a least some interference involving one form of arms proliferation probably helped rather than hurt. Things got better with the use of well-armed foreign mercenaries (Executive Outcomes) and worse after their departure. It got better again with a second intervention by well-armed British troops.
The most concrete test case for whether proliferation makes things worse involves Israel's two invasions of Lebanon, in 1982 and 2006. Between the two dates, Hezbollah acquired massive amounts of weaponry, far more sophisticated than what they had the first time. This is clearly proliferation. The circumstances of the two invasions are about as similar as one could expect in a constantly changing world. In the first invasion, 19,000 Lebanese and Palestinians killed. In the second invasion, 1300 Lebanese and 165 Israelis killed.
So did proliferation make things better, not worse? You might reply that a great deal contributed to the casualty figures other than mere weaponry. But that's kind of the point. Proliferation alone is only a very partial cause whose effects are very hard to gauge. That's why it's far from obvious that it makes things worse.
Even conceding that arms make conflicts worse, that can't make any kind of blanket case against proliferation. Some interference - which involves proliferation - can also save countless lives. It did so in Cambodia when the Vietnamese invaded - something they probably wouldn't have done without Soviet-supplied weaponry. It did so in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia. These are clear cases where the introduction of superior weaponry stopped rather than started or intensified a slaughter. So if such interventions and 'meddling' typically involve arms proliferation, they show that proliferation isn't always undesirable.
Proliferation and resistance
Indeed it seems dangerously obtuse to claim that proliferation "just makes things worse". Providing non-state actors with firearms does indeed threaten the social order. It does indeed sometimes 'make things worse' if that means intensifying the fighting. But in some cases that is not only a desirable outcome but an urgent need. In the New York Times, Charles Savage wonders "...how many of those AK-47s and RPG-7s we see Islamists waving around today passed through the Midwest Depot on their way to freedom fighters in past decades?” He does not wonder how many fell into the hands of moderate, secular Syrian civilians desperate to defend themselves and their children. He does not ask how many have been used against the most extreme or the extreme Islamists.
In most conflicts you cannot defeat an enemy without intensifying the fighting and therefore 'making things worse'. That's not much of a reason for anything, because sometimes the failure to defeat would be even more disastrous. What if the enemy ought to be defeated? Murderous states that simply massacre any unarmed opposition constitute such an enemy. They can be resisted only with violence. To suppose otherwise amounts to ruling out any right of revolt, literally no matter what massive and capriciously sadistic orgy a state unleashes on its population. Advocacy of non-violence in such circumstances is willfully, repugnantly obtuse. So is 'demanding action' from an obviously non-existent or incurably paralyzed 'international community'. What's more, you cannot both defend the right of citizens to take up arms against an oppressive state and deny a right to acquire those arms. How then can there be no duty to provide the arms? It is perhaps no accident that those most concerned about arms proliferation live in comfortable lives in relatively comfortable societies where any violence seems a horrific intrusion on their existence.
Proliferation in Syria
Let's be clear. If you oppose 'proliferation'- all proliferation, anywhere - you must oppose supplying arms to Syria's rebels. In fact you must favor *blocking* all arms to the rebels. What you favor would assure Assad a victory. So you prefer his victory to the possibility that half a dozen 1970s-vintage anti-tank missile systems make it into the wild. In fact you also prefer the rebels not capture any arms. Arms proliferation obsessives regularly refer to such captures as "looting arms depots", a paradigm case of proliferation. On the other hand Assad's use of arms raises no proliferation concerns. He represents a state and of course his activities violate no proliferation strictures. So you prefer that the rebels not get any arms - best would be if they lost the arms they already have - and you have no proliferation concerns about Assad's weaponry, as long as he keeps control of it.
Not only do you have this preference, you vigorously work to implement it. You can't do much about the looting but you do what you can. By rights you should work to expose every aspect of the arms proliferation process, not only cases of weapons purchase and transfer but also the collection and transmission of funds for these 'illicit' activities. Of course your successes will benefit Assad in ways he could not possibly achieve - with luck, your intervention might even be decisive. A Martian might say you were Assad's ally. But no matter, because in your world of thoughts and words, you are completely against Assad and deplore his absolutely appalling behavior, which runs contrary to various worthy human rights conventions. You may even 'demand' that all sorts of authorities do all sorts of things - though nothing substantial without UN Security Council approval. Anything else would be contrary to international law, and you are all for international law. To summarize, inside your head you are an impartial bien-pensant working to disarm the bad guys. In the world, where actions rather than intentions count, you are working for Assad.
Alternatively, you could admit to yourself that, in the world outside your head, we have an obligation to proliferate arms in the direction of the Syrian rebels. Make no mistake, some of these arms will most certainly get into 'the wrong hands'. This will have little immediate tendency to down civilian airliners or export mass murder because the arms supplied will be, uh, used. It's after the fighting that large quantities of arms will be available for use outside Syria. Perhaps, therefore, the time to work against proliferation is after the rebels win, not before.
(*) Rationality demands that you consider not only the probability of the outcome but its value, positive or negative. Suppose the 747 catastrophe is much more likely than the Grippen catastrophe. Nevertheless the Grippen catastrophe is much, much worse. So it's worth asking which outcome is more to be feared - especially since we can't seriously assess the probabilities in either case.