Some people never learn from their mistakes. After Afghanistan and Libya, why would anyone want to arm the Syrian rebels, when it’s obvious that any weapons shipment would fall into the hands of the radical al-Qaeda-linked factions that now dominate the splintered opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime?
France and Great Britain pressured the European Union to lift the arms embargo and intend to supply weapons to the rebels as soon as Aug. 1, if a hoped-for June peace conference in Geneva co-sponsored by the United States and Russia bears no result. U.S. Senator John McCain is a leading proponent of arming the rebels, alongside some other Republicans who have criticized President Barack Obama’s reluctance to intervene militarily in the Syrian conflict.
The same unlikely alliance that led to the ill-inspired 2011 attack on Libya is once again at work here: Right-wing hawks, inspired by the philosophy that led George W. Bush to invade Iraq, have gained the support of left-leaning humanitarians who believe in the doctrine of R2P, the “responsibility to protect” vulnerable populations. Never mind that the Syrian conflict has turned into a civil war, with both sides guilty of terrible acts of violence.
The European ultimatum might be no more than an attempt to put pressure on the Syrian government, but at this point, it’s counterproductive. Mr. al-Assad, with his back to the wall, will use even more force to save his regime, and in response to the European ultimatum, Russia will increase its military aid to Syria.
Why amplify the available firepower in the world’s most explosive region? Syria’s neighbours have already been drawn into the maelstrom, beginning with Iran and Hezbollah, the Shia allies of the Alawi Syrian dynasty – a development that in turn pushed Israel to launch air raids over Syria. The Syrian war is spilling into Lebanon, where the Sunni minority is rising against Hezbollah in solidarity with the Sunni Syrian rebels. Turkey and especially Jordan will soon be destabilized by the flood of refugees. A Syrian arms race also risks aggravating the sectarian warfare between Sunnis and Shiites in nearby Iraq.
Faraway countries like Canada should have no interest in helping groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, the dominant rebel force linked to al-Qaeda. Syria has replaced Afghanistan as the new training ground for would-be jihadists.
What happened in Libya should be instructive. Under the quixotic leadership of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization supplied powerful military aid to a group of rebels based in Benghazi, a hotbed of Islamist fundamentalism. Now, in an eerie reminder of what happened in Afghanistan after the Americans armed the Taliban against the Soviets, Libya’s vast territory has become a no-go zone ruled by fractious and heavily armed militias, a haven for al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups that specialize in hostage-taking.
Fortunately, Mr. Obama has learned the lessons of Afghanistan and Libya. He quietly retreated from an earlier bombastic declaration about the “red line” that would be crossed if the Syrian government used chemical weapons, and he wants to give the Geneva conference a chance before raising his voice – a reasonable position echoed by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and his German counterpart, Guido Westerwelle.
The only way to end the suffering of Syria’s population is diplomacy, not more warfare.