Arming Syria’s rebels is a mistake

The International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan got bombed last week. "So what?" I hear you say. I hear you say. Bombs go off in Afghanistan all the time. In fact, these bombs were unusual.


by Sarah S. Davison

The International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan got bombed last week. “So what?” I hear you say. Bombs go off in Afghanistan all the time. In fact, these bombs were unusual. They were the clearest sign so far that things are spinning out of control in Afghanistan, and they also indicate that “arming the rebels” in Syria is a really bad idea. Allow me to explain.

The key to this event is the Red Cross commitment to silence. The ICRC remains strictly neutral in all conflicts, providing medical services to the neediest while keeping its mouth shut. As a result, it gains access to all sorts of places, because it is willing to deal on a basis of trust with all sorts of people in order to achieve its objectives. It’s a controversial approach, but it works.

In Afghanistan, the ICRC has operated out of unguarded compounds without incident for 26 years, through the Soviet occupation, the Taliban years, and the American/NATO occupation. It is an extraordinary accomplishment. Last year, the Taliban spoke out publicly in appreciation of its efforts, which include relentless prison visits regardless of whichever nationality is running the prisons, and whatever nationalities are incarcerated inside them.

So when a suicide bomber blew himself up at the ICRC’s unarmed compound in Jalabad a couple of weeks ago, Afghans reacted with shock. Nobody was hurt, apart from the bomber, but a battle with three armed men raged for three hours, and nobody knew who the attackers were. Nobody claimed responsibility. The Taliban quickly denied having anything to do with it.

That the ICRC is now a target is a source of real concern in Afghanistan, and it has contributed to a sense of foreboding as the Americans withdraw. The ground seems to be shifting underfoot, with the insurrection splintering into uncontrolled armed gangs, or militias, preparing to exploit any vacuum created by the U.S. departure.

Six weeks ago, the Red Cross spoke out after one of its vaccination workers and a driver were killed – something that should not have happened, because all armed groups in the area should have known they agreed to their presence. “What we observe in some areas of the country is a proliferation and fragmentation of armed actors,” Gherardo Pontrandolfi told journalists. “To have safe access to certain parts of the country we have to multiply contacts at all levels with different armed groups, different command structures. It’s not getting any easier.”

The proliferation of militias in a heavily-armed tribal nation threatens chaos akin to Somalia, where armed groups raged for more than a decade in a situation of total collapse. This sort of outcome, far beyond the anodyne descriptor “failed state,” is catastrophic and very difficult to reverse. So it’s worth asking the Americans why their policies appear to promote this eventuality, not just in Afghanistan, but in Syria also.

In 2009, when events in Afghanistan started to deteriorate rapidly, U.S. General David Petraeus started to advocate a system called “arbakai” where local tribal councils would be given arms and encouraged to police their own areas. The plan was denounced from pillar to post. In a situation of disintegrating security, it is widely accepted that arming independent militias produces only one result: more killings, more fighting, more war. Which is terrific if you’re a defence contractor, but not so great if you’re an Afghan.

The United States has adopted a similar position in Syria with its calls for arming of the rebels. The “rebels,” so-called, are a fractious crew of jihadists, militants, thugs, criminals and the depraved. By far the most effective – some say the only effective – groups are the al Qaida-linked jihadists. But even these groups are at loggerheads, with a Syrian group fighting to remove the president, and an Iraqi group fighting for far more ambitious, global agenda. And so the Geneva 2 talks are in jeopardy not because Syrian president Bashar Al Assad is refusing to attend – he will – but because the “rebels” cannot agree upon anything, even a representative. Which confirms that this group can in no way be described as “an opposition” let alone a “government-in-waiting.” Supplying heavy weaponry to such a group is beyond foolhardy. It is reckless.

The “rebels” do not promise stability. They promise the opposite, and the majority of Syrians have already figured this out. Surveys released last week by the most impartial Western NGOs active in the Syrian conflict showed approximately 70 per cent of the Syrian people support Assad, and these supporters include the country’s Sunni business classes. Despite all their objections to his strongman tactics, Syrians understand what they have lost, and they reckon Assad is their best shot to get it back. “It” is stability, a precious commodity too often ignored until it is gone.

So when U.K. foreign minister William Hague engineers the lifting of the Syrian arms embargo, when U.S. Senator John McCain calls for arming of the jihadists, when Saudi-affiliated extremists call for the overthrow of Assad, it behooves ordinary Westerners to ask who these people actually represent.

Because they don’t seem to represent the people of Syria, and they certainly do not represent majority opinion in the West. A recent U.K. survey showed that less than one-quarter of Britons agree with arming the rebels, while fewer than 15 per cent of Americans supported the idea in a Wall Street Journal poll released on Wednesday. But guess what? Nearly 60 per cent of Britons, and nearly 50 per cent of Americans want their governments to provide humanitarian aid – and not just to the Syrians inside that nation’s borders, but to the refugees living in extremely difficult conditions inside Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

So understanding the ICRC’s success in Afghanistan really isn’t that difficult. In fact, the Red Cross is more representative of majority Western opinion than our own leaders. The only logical conclusion is that Westerners are decent people, but that Western leaders are not.

So if we Westerners are also to take a message from the Red Cross bombs, it is that we have a responsibility to enforce our leaders’ legislative duty to represent and promote our views, rather than the views of – whom, exactly? Who does John McCain actually represent? Who is William Hague acting on behalf of? Because it’s certainly not us.

The Western electorate actively opposes arming the rebels, and it wants an immediate increase in humanitarian aid. It also wants a sincere effort toward a peaceful resolution that respects the majority Syrian view. How many more innocents have to get killed or bombed before our elected representatives, so-called, “get the message?”

Sarah Davison is a former Yukon journalist who attended the Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. She currently lives in Whitehorse.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Kwanlin Dün First Nation chief Doris Bill holds up a signed copy of the KDFN <em>Lands Act</em> agreement during an announcement at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse on Oct. 20. Under the new act, called Nan kay sháwthän Däk’anúta ch’e (We all look after our land) in Southern Tutchone, KDFN will be able to allot citizens land to build their own houses on, for example, or to use for traditional activities. The First Nation will also be able to enforce laws around things like land access and littering. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Kwanlin Dün First Nation’s Lands Act comes into force

The act gives the First Nation the authority to manage, protect and enforce laws on its settlement lands

Two doctors in Watson Lake say they are at risk of losing their housing due to a Yukon Housing Corporation policy that only allows one pet per family. (Wikimedia Commons)
Healthcare workers in Watson Lake say housing pet policy could force them to leave

The Yukon Housing Corporation has threatened evictions for having more than one pet

The Many Rivers Counselling and Support Services building in Whitehorse on March 28, 2019. Three people who sat on Many Rivers’ board immediately before it closed for good say they were relieved to hear that the Yukon RCMP has undertaken a forensic audit into the now-defunct NGO’s financial affairs. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Former Many Rivers board members relieved to hear about forensic audit, wonder what took so long

Three people who sat on Many Rivers’ board immediately before it closed… Continue reading

Whitehorse General Hospital in Whitehorse on Feb. 14, 2019. The Yukon Employees’ Union and Yukon Hospital Corporation are at odds over whether there’s a critical staffing shortage at the territory’s hospitals. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
YEU, Yukon Hospital Corp. at odds over whether hospitals are understaffed

YEU says four nurses quit within 12 hours last week, a claim the YHC says is “inaccurate”

Two former Whitehorse Correctional Centre inmates, Ray Hartling and Mark Lange, have filed a class action against the jail, corrections officials and Yukon government on behalf of everyone who’s been placed in two restrictive units over the past six years. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Class action filed against Whitehorse Correctional Centre over use of segregation

Two former Whitehorse Correctional Centre inmates have filed a class action against… Continue reading

Smartphone showing various applications to social media services and Google. (Pixabay photo)
National media calling for level playing field with Google, Facebook

In Canada, Google and Facebook control 80 per cent of all online advertising revenues

Education Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee, right, before question period at the Yukon legislative assembly in Whitehorse on March 7, 2019. The Yukon government announced Oct. 19 it has increased the honoraria rates for school council members. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Honoraria increased for school council members

Members of school councils throughout the territory could soon receive an increased… Continue reading

Triple J’s Canna Space in Whitehorse on April 17, 2019, opens their first container of product. Two years after Canada legalized the sale of cannabis, Yukon leads the country in per capita legal sales. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon leads Canadian cannabis sales two years after legalization

Private retailers still asking for changes that would allow online sales

A sign greets guests near the entrance of the Canada Games Centre in Whitehorse on June 11. The city announced Oct. 16 it was moving into the next part of its phased reopening plan with spectator seating areas open at a reduced capacity to allow for physical distancing. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
CGC reopening continues

Limited spectator seating now available

During Whitehorse city council’s Oct. 19 meeting, planning manager Mélodie Simard brought forward a recommendation that a proposed Official Community Plan amendment move forward that would designate a 56.3 hectare piece of land in Whistle Bend, currently designated as green space, as urban residential use. (Courtesy City of Whitehorse)
More development in Whistle Bend contemplated

OCP change would be the first of several steps to develop future area

EDITORIAL: Don’t let the City of Whitehorse distract you

A little over two weeks after Whitehorse city council voted to give… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Northwestel has released the proposed prices for its unlimited plans. Unlimited internet in Whitehorse and Carcross could cost users between $160.95 and $249.95 per month depending on their choice of package. (Yukon News file)
Unlimited internet options outlined

Will require CRTC approval before Northwestel makes them available

Most Read