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Armed to the Teeth: Syrian Regime and Opposition to Receive Weapons

July 30, 2013

Background

Amid reports that more than 100,000 people have been killed and millions more displaced from their homes as part of the Syrian civil war since it began in March 2011, recent developments point to increased foreign intervention and support for both sides in the conflict, raising concerns that the bloodshed has no end in sight.

The conflict in Syria has raged with increasing ferocity since uprisings against President Bashar al-Assad and his Syrian Ba’ath Party began on March 15, 2011, as a part of the wider Arab Spring protest movement. Protesters demanded the resignation of Assad, who took control of the nation following the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who had ruled Syria since 1970 after seizing power in a “corrective revolution.” Bashar al-Assad responded harshly, deploying the Syrian Army to crush the dissent. The Army employed lethal force against unarmed protesters, which quickly swelled the number of demonstrators against the regime. As protests continued, by late-April 2011, large-scale military operations began against towns and cities with significant opposition to Assad’s rule, and opposition fighting units started to form, primarily from soldiers and low-level officers defecting from the Syrian Army.

Bashar al-Assad has attempted to crush any opposition to his rule

Bashar al-Assad has attempted to crush any opposition to his rule

By the end of July 2011, after continued violence and unrest, the formation of the Free Syrian Army was announced, becoming the main umbrella group representing opposition forces. The situation continued to deteriorate, with large sieges by government forces, multiple massacres, and rebel offensives around Syria in major cities such as Aleppo.

Syrian rebels continued to make gains across the country, threatening or controlling large sections of many large cities, including Aleppo, Homs, and the capital city of Damascus by late 2012. Summer 2013 has seen widespread and extensive government offensives, however, supplemented by foreign fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran. The strategic town of Qusair was captured, along with the Syrian army pushing rebels from long-held areas of cities such as Homs and Aleppo. Just this week, government forces expelled rebel forces from the enclave of Khalidiya in Homs, an area under opposition control since mid-2011. These renewed offensives by government forces have come as Western support for rebels has cooled, as rebel groups become increasingly dominated by Islamist extremists, particularly the Al-Nusra Front. The group, which is among the most dedicated and effective opposition groups, is reported to be the representative of Al-Qaeda in Iraq in Syria, and is generally described as being made up of Sunni Islamist Jihadists. There is growing conflict between more moderate opposition groups and jihadists, culminating recently in the assassination of a senior rebel commander by a group linked to al-Qaeda in Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

The Al-Nusra Front has come to symbolize the extremism of some rebel groups

The Al-Nusra Front has come to symbolize the extremism of some rebel groups

With conflict between opposition groups seeming to become an increasingly large issue and government forces gaining momentum, Bashar al-Assad appears to still maintain a firm grip on power, albeit in a country now completely devastated by over two years of civil war. Rebel forces, however, are far from backing down, and the introduction of foreign arms to rebel groups could allow opposition groups to take back the offensive.

Foreign Support for Regime, Opposition

Although opposition groups have received financial support and weapons from nations such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, Western countries have been wary to commit direct military assistance and arms to aid rebel groups. Meanwhile, government forces have managed to push back rebels in nearly all sectors, aided by fighters, weapons, and additional support from Hezbollah and Iran. Additionally, Russia, through existing  weapons contracts, has continued to send military equipment to the Syrian regime, including advanced S-300 missile defense batteries. The large majority of Syrian army equipment is of Russian design and origin, as the two nations have long been regional allies. Russia, along with China, has blocked numerous UN Security Council resolutions for intervention in Syria, as the nation fears losing influence in the region (partially through its naval base in the Syrian city of Tartus) and having the Assad regime replaced by extremists or those hostile to Russia.

Providing arms to rebels is seen as necessary to counter recent army victories

Providing arms to rebels is seen as necessary to counter recent army victories

European Union nations, meanwhile, and the United States have long been supporters in principle of the Syrian opposition. With UN intervention efforts blocked by Russia and China, however, the nations have been left in the difficult position of either standing back and watching events unfold or directly arming rebels, many of whom could potentially utilize such weapons against Western targets in the future. Recently, the European Union has blacklisted the military wing of Hezbollah, naming it a terrorist organization for its role in the Syrian conflict, a largely symbolic move. The EU is still divided over providing direct assistance to rebel groups, particularly because there is no central structure to the opposition and rebel groups have increasingly come to be dominated by foreign fighters and Islamist extremists. Additionally, supporters for arming the opposition in the EU, such as UK Prime Minister David Cameron, have abandoned plans for the time being to do so, not willing to become intimately involved in the conflict and believing that the provision of small arms would do little to change the balance of power. For the moment, the European Union appears unwilling to provide significant military assistance to opposition groups, preferring to direct its focus to aiding the humanitarian situation. The prospect of European arms being directed to Syrian rebels is not completely off the table, however, and is certainly possible given additional developments in Syria.

The United States, on the other hand, has recently announced that it would move ahead with plans to provide Syrian rebels with small arms, ammunition, and perhaps anti-tank weapons in order to allow the opposition groups to resist government forces and eventually prevail in the conflict. Despite much skepticism that the aid would be successful, the Obama Administration has pushed ahead with the plans due to the belief that Assad’s forces have employed chemical weapons, crossing a “red line” established earlier in the conflict by President Obama.

Syria has been completely devastated by the conflict

Syria has been completely devastated by the conflict

The future of Syria is yet to be determined, with a defiant Assad and rebel groups that are sure to continue resistance until their demands are met. For millions of innocent Syrian civilians, though, the conflict has already left countless cities and lives in ruins, damage that will be difficult to ever fully repair. Perhaps the only thing certain in Syria is continued bloodshed and brutality in the face of increased support by world powers on both sides and a complete lack of negotiation and reconciliation. Regardless of who claims to be in power in the near future in Syria, chaos is sure to be the only force that truly reigns.

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