Arming the Syrian Opposition Now a Real Possibility

The Syrian city of Homs is a city under siege. The army has surrounded Syria’s third-largest city, in between Damascus and Aleppo, for nearly two weeks. Tanks and mortar crews are positioned along the its main arteries just outside downtown. No Syrian can get in to the area to visit family members or friends and any Syrian who attempts to get out is considered lucky.

Thanks to the Syrian government, no foreign journalists are allowed into the country to document what exactly is going on and how bad the violence really is. Nonetheless, humanitarian and civil society organizations with contacts inside Homs report that at least four hundred people have been killed over the past thirteen days, with a total of seven hundred killed nationwide since China and Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that would have called on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down.

The scene currently unfolding in Homs is a twenty-first century iteration of the infamous siege of Sarajevo, when Serbian forces unleashed an indiscriminate barrage of shelling on a town whose residents were unable to flee. The violence has gotten so bad that the normally apolitical Arab League, which has turned itself into an unusually assertive regional body over the past year, has expelled Syrian diplomats and is calling for the world to reach out to the Syrian opposition. Saudi Arabia, the heavyweight of the Gulf Cooperation Council, has followed suit by resending practically the same resolution that Beijing and Moscow rejected to the General Assembly of the United Nations which was enacted by a wide margin.

Not to be outdone, the UN’s top human rights official, Navanethem Pillay, addressed the Generally Assembly on Monday with some of her strongest words yet on President Assad and his security forces. Crimes against humanity have been conducted by the Syrian government since March, she said. And in words seemingly aimed at China and Russia, Pillay argued that “the longer the international community fails to take action, the more the civilian population will suffer from countless atrocities committed against them.”

Yet the international community cannot do much more at the multilateral level. The Chinese and Russians have taken the Security Council option off the table, ensuring that any more attempts at the council to push Assad from power will be met with another veto. The European Union is reportedly stepping up its own economic sanctions against the Assad regime, cutting off its transactions with the Syrian central bank. The United States continues to support the Arab League’s calls for the violence to stop unconditionally, all the while trying to determine how it can increase financial and political resources to the opposition without making the situation worse.

However the Obama Administration chooses to respond, Gulf Arabs are getting restless over their fellow Sunnis being killed by a government that is controlled by Shia Alawites. An unnamed Arab official hinted that channeling weapons to the Free Syrian Army, Assad’s most significant military foe inside the country, may be an option if the current rate of killing continues unabated.

If anything spurs the world to action, it should be the prospect of an already deadly civil conflict in Syria becoming even more militarized. The result of such a development would most certainly entail greater numerical losses for the Syrian people, even more support to the Assad regime from Iran and Russia, and the Syrian people facing the greater prospect of mass casualty attacks on civilian areas.

Syria’s conflict is the most deadly segment of the Arab Spring protests, behind Libya. But the situation will only deteriorate further if more machine guns, AK-47s, explosive devices and ammunition are introduced into a conflict that is smack at the center of the region’s many divides.