Dan Drezner argues for arming the Syrian opposition, but he also acknowledges the likely consequences:
Arming the opposition will have costs: The loss of life will escalate; the uprising against Assad could turn into a sectarian conflict; Iran might retaliate by fomenting armed resistance in Bahrain; and the result might simply be an arms race-by-proxy inside Syrian borders. And for the United States, the Syrian crisis matters, but is nevertheless a distraction from the Obama administration’s highest stated priority in the region: getting a handle on Iran’s nuclear program.
That said, the Syrian population wants regime change [bold mine-DL]. What’s going on inside of Syria is a civil war, and the government is clearly receiving ample support from both Russia and Iran. Arming the opposition at least evens the odds on the battlefield.
There are three problems I see here. The most important one is that arming the Syrian opposition will exacerbate the suffering of the population that might justify interfering in Syrian affairs in the first place. I appreciate that Drezner doesn’t claim that this has much of anything to do with protecting the civilian population, but in the absence of that justification I don’t see what the case for deeper involvement is. At this point, some advocates of backing the Syrian opposition have dispensed entirely with the idea of curtailing regime violence. The goal now appears to be to provoke more regime violence while providing the opposition with the means to kill more pro-regime Syrians in the hopes that this leads to regime change.
Drezner says that “the Syrian population wants regime change,” but this needs to be significantly qualified. Clearly, many Syrians want regime change. Perhaps even a large majority of Syrians wants this, but a significant minority of as much as 20-30% of the population almost certainly does not. Once the U.S. gets into the business of arming anti-regime Syrians, it is pitting itself against the interests of that part of the Syrian population, and the U.S. will be partly responsible for what anti-regime forces do to that part of the population.
Let’s also acknowledge that arming the opposition can only do so much to “even the odds on the battlefield.” The Free Syrian Army is massively outnumbered by the Syrian military. If the U.S. backs a vastly weaker side in a civil war, what do we expect the outcome to be? It’s one thing to say that the U.S. should support a Syrian force to topple the current government, and something else entirely to secure that outcome. Once the Syrian opposition has been turned into a full-blown Western-backed insurrection, do we think that Assad and his allies won’t unleash even greater devastation on the parts of the country that support this insurrection? How many Groznys do we want to help create in Syria? The Syrian government is receiving significant support from Russia and Iran (and Iraq), and if the U.S. and other states start funneling weapons to the opposition we can be reasonably sure that Assad’s patrons will increase that support. Arming the Syrian opposition might keep them from losing sooner than they would otherwise, but I don’t see how it will allow them to prevail.