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DESPITE the carnage and intense anger created by the US-led wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, many prominent commentators and politicians repeatedly pushed for the West to step up its intervention in Syria.
In 2012 Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow for Middle East security at the Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote an article titled “Arm Syrian rebels to enable [a] political solution.”
Three years later human rights activist Peter Tatchell was campaigning for what he called “Syrian democratic forces” to be given anti-aircraft missiles and Kurdish forces to be supplied with “heavy artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles against Isis.”
More recently, Charles Lister and Dominic Nelson from the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington DC argued that the US needs to continue to support its proxies in Syria “as a durable source of pressure on the regime in Damascus.”
The problem with this argument is that the academic literature shows that, “in general, external support for rebels almost always makes wars longer, bloodier and harder to resolve,” as Professor Marc Lynch, director of the Project on Middle East Political Science at George Washington University, explained in 2014.
Max Abrahms, professor of political science at Northwestern University in the US, concurs. He recently co-wrote an article in the Los Angeles Times which noted that “the conflict literature makes clear that external support for the opposition tends to exacerbate and extend civil wars.”
Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham and William Reed from the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland examined data from 218 cases of civil war extending from 1990 to 2011.
Their conclusion? “We find that conflicts in which the rebel group received external support from a third party lasted significantly longer than civil wars that did not involve external support.”
And it’s not just academics in their ivory towers. In 2013 there was a flurry of warnings about arming the rebels in Syria.
“More arms would only mean more deaths and destruction,” noted then United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki Moon. Two former Nato secretaries-general wrote an article in the New York Times arguing: “Western military engagement in Syria is likely to provoke further escalation on all sides, deepening the civil war and strengthening the forces of extremism, sectarianism and criminality.”
Many NGOs were equally opposed. “Providing more weapons will mean prolonged fighting and more civilian deaths,” noted Oxfam US, while the women’s rights organisation MADRE stated: “Funnelling more weapons to the opposition” would “further diminish chances of a democratic outcome for Syria.”
The US ignored the warnings from senior academics, analysts and organisations with years of experience of dealing with conflicts, and instead worked with Britain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply an “extraordinary amount of arms” to the rebels in Syria, according to then US secretary of state John Kerry in 2016.
And, as predicted by the two former heads of Nato above, this increase in support provoked the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies to escalate their involvement in the conflict.
This is because, as Julian Barnes-Dacey, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in February 2016: “A central story of the Syrian conflict has been the cycle of escalations and counter-escalations in the continued pursuit of victory by both sides.”
For instance, in an October 2015 article titled “Did US weapons supplied to Syrian rebels draw Russia into the conflict?” the Washington Post noted that TOW anti-tank missiles delivered to the rebels by the US and its allies were “so successful … in driving rebel gains in north-western Syria that rebels call the missile the ‘Assad-tamer’.”
The report goes on to quote Oubai Shahbandar, a Dubai-based consultant who previously worked with the Syrian rebels, as saying: “A primary driving factor in Russia’s calculus [to intervene militarily in September 2015] was the realisation that the Assad regime was militarily weakening and in danger of losing territory in north-western Syria. The TOWs played an outsize role in that.”
Confirming the veracity of the earlier warnings about the West arming the rebels, last year Professor Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, explained that the US had “prolonged the civil war and has abetted the terrible destruction” and “destabilised the region.”
The death and destruction has been enormous. In 2016, United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura estimated 400,000 people had been killed in the conflict, while the UN reports more than half of all Syrians have fled their homes — an estimated five million have left the country and more than six million are internally displaced.
So the US and British governments consciously chose to escalate the conflict in Syria, knowing it would likely increase the level of violence and the number of civilian and combatant deaths, as well as making a peaceful resolution more unlikely.
It’s an unpalatable conclusion that jars with the liberal idea of the West’s “basic benevolence,” though one that is backed up by the evidence and elementary logic.
And it is a conclusion you will be hard-pressed to find in any other British national newspaper.
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