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.

COMMENTARY

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.

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