Thursday, May 9, 2013

Arms proliferation in Syria: a great excuse?

Assad's most useful supporters - that is, those who deplore him and advocate doing nothing about him - have set up a nice dilemma.

On the one hand, they give all sorts of reasons why a ground invasion and/or 'air war' will drag the West into that old familiar territory, 'a quagmire'.  (Like Libya?)  Their arguments depart from a studied unwillingness to acknowledge that no one is asking for or contemplating such measures.  What the hell, it's still a good reason for doing nothing.

On the other hand, if someone insists that invasion is not an option, the focus shifts to arming the Syrian opposition.  This move would be exceedingly cheap and easy, and couldn't possibly create a quagmire.  So the big deal here is arms proliferation.

Arms proliferation seems to be the West's real concern in any case.  The idea is that terrorists will acquire advanced portable anti-tank and portable anti-aircraft missile systems (MANPADS).  This, it's said, is bad.  Here are things to bear in mind before embracing that conclusion too passionately.

First, supposing there are real terrorists in Syria, they will acquire these arms in any case.  Advanced anti-tank weapons such as the Russian Kornet and advanced MANPADS such as the SA-16 and SA-24 have already been seen there.   A refusal to supply such weapons to the opposition will simply mean redoubled efforts to get them elsewhere.  And that may be the tip of a very large iceberg, because the Syrian government possesses good supplies of all these weapons.   Assuming, as most do, that the régime will sooner or alter fall, lots of them will come up for grabs.   Nothing in past experience supports any expectation they'll all be hurried away by nice Western agents.  So non-intervention hardly promises non-proliferation.

Second, the proliferation feared by the West will probably be much more extensive if Assad stays in power.   That's because Hizbollah will continue to be supplied and to supply others.  So even if we discount proliferation within Syria itself as a result of régime rearming, failing to support the Syrian revolution will lead to more of it.

Third, arms proliferation has no direct relationship to the terror attacks that presumably most concern the West - those occurring within Western countries.  Every major terrorist attack in the West, starting with Oklahoma City, used no weapons at all - 9-11, the Madrid bombings, the London bombings.  The same of course holds for the most recent attack, on the Boston Marathon.  Even outside the West, for example in Somalia, bombs predominate.   That's presumably because it's a lot easier to smuggle in a bomb than, say, an anti-tank weapon.  This is not to say that there have never been terrorist attacks with weapons or that more are impossible.  It's to say that stopping arms proliferation certainly won't foil terrorist plans.  Anyone no longer able to use weapons has well-tried alternatives.

Fourth, arms proliferation from Syria is unlikely even to have much indirect relationship to terrorism.  The calls to remember Afghanistan have to do with allowing Al Qaeda to establish an enclave there - it's not as if they actually used US arms to mount major terror attacks.  There is no chance at all that the much-feared Islamist extremists can establish a terrorist enclave in Syria, which after Assad will be completely surrounded by extremely well-armed powers extremely hostile to their agenda.  All the great powers as well as much of the Syrian population will be opposed as well. Syria will be about as useful a terrorist redoubt as, say,  Luxembourg.

Finally, what world do the anti-proliferation obsessives inhabit?  Thirty-three nations now have just one type of advanced MANPADS, the Igla series.  Among them are Belarus, Eritrea, Iran, Macedonia, Serbia, Sri Lanka, and Slovakia.  According to an Australian government source, "there are now somewhere between 500,000 and 750,000 [MANPADS] in worldwide inventories. They have been developed or produced under licence by more than a dozen countries." The producers now include Pakistan and Iran.  The idea that arming the Syrian resistance will substantially affect the proliferation picture is ludicrous.   Surely there is some better excuse for letting Assad slaughter with impunity.


A New York Times article claims there have been extensive arms shipments to the rebels via Jordan and Turkey.   It's not clear what's in these shipments nor what actually reaches the rebels, who frequently run out of ammunition.   In any case this does not bear on the proliferation issue.  The fact is that the rebels have virtually no advanced weapons, so clearly they're not getting them.

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