For several sound reasons, Western decision-makers have up to now rejected the idea of comprehensively arming Syria's opposition. But the facts on the ground have increasingly overrun those arguments, and the case for arming the rebels grows stronger by the month.
Today, it is taken for granted that using chemical weapons -- as the Assad regime has reportedly done -- is uniquely intolerable. Observers have speculated that humans simply harbor a particular fear of them or that militaries have never considered them useful. In fact, the proscription is the result of decades of international work.
In a recent article, Bilal Saab and Andrew Tabler argued that negotiations between the Assad regime and the rebels would only prolong the war in Syria. In fact, conflicts end in mediation much more often than they end in decisive military defeat -- and those conflicts are less likely to revert to war. The choice in Syria is whether to start talks now, or wait until even more of the country is in ruins.
The recent Kerry-Lavrov initiative to end the conflict in Syria through talks was met with skepticism among those who believe that the United States and Russia will bring their own agendas to the table, that Bashar al-Assad will refuse to step down, and that the Syrian opposition is too fragmented to strike a deal. But those are common problems, and successful talks can be -- and have been -- started under just such conditions.
A Free Syrian Army fighter carries the empty shell of a cluster bomb. (Courtesy Reuters)
In recent weeks, the argument that a decisive Syrian rebel victory would not necessarily be a good thing has gained ground in U.S. foreign policy circles. A negotiated settlement between Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and the rebels, the argument goes, would be preferable. Such an ending would have a better chance of stanching the violence and preventing outright sectarian war between the mostly Sunni rebels -- hungry for revenge against the Alawites -- and the rest of the country.
Yet after almost two years of bloodletting by the Syrian government, there is little chance that splitting the difference between the factions would end the conflict. Even worse, a negotiated outcome would perpetuate Assad's favorite strategy -- honed over decades -- of using the threat of sectarian war to make his adversaries in the international community wary of getting involved. Instead, the end of the Assad regime should be decisive and complete.
Of course, there are those who disagree. For one, Glenn Robinson, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, has argued that the Syrian rebels, if they win, will seek revenge and embrace neither democracy nor liberalism. Arguing along the same lines, Madhav Joshi, a senior researcher at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and David Mason, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, have suggested that a decisive military victory in a civil war is dangerous. The victorious side, they say, is likely to try to exclude the other from government (and enforce that exclusion through its military dominance) rather than to try to co-opt the former rival's supporters by including them...