Argument

Small Arms, Big Problems

Western assault rifles are showing up in the hands of Islamist fighters in Gaza. It's a cautionary tale for arms-exporting countries across the globe.

There's one big problem with small arms: They don't come with an expiration date. These reliable killing machines pass from dead soldiers to living insurgents, and from a country's armory to a militia's safe house thousands of miles away. As soon as weapons crates cross international borders, arms-producing countries lose control over where they head next -- a fact on full display during recent conflicts across the Middle East, and now in the Gaza Strip.

On Nov. 17, Hamas released a video that it said would "shock Israel" -- footage of an insurgent firing a surface-to-air missile at what the Palestinian Islamist group claimed was an Israeli warplane. While it is impossible to verify that the video was shot in Gaza during the current conflict, the footage shows a man-portable air-defense system (MANPADS) used for targeting aircraft. However, according to Matt Schroeder, senior analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, the system is incomplete. "If it is an SA-7 [a type of surface-to-air missile], the battery appears to be missing or altered," he said. "A wire seems connected to the system -- an unusual set-up."

Such a weapon could theoretically down a fighter jet, but it is unlikely. "The presence of SA-7 systems will probably not be a game-changer in the current conflict because they are not sophisticated enough," Schroeder said. "But they are a serious concern for civilian aviation when they are in the hands of trained terrorist groups."

It's not just one stray missile system -- there is also evidence that Western-made weapons are getting in the hands of Gaza-based Islamist militants. Six weeks ago, the al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, organized a military parade in the Gaza Strip city of Rafah. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-funded group that has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, published several pictures on its official website showing fighters equipped with Belgian FN F2000 assault rifles.

The FN F2000 is made by the Belgian company FN Herstal. Beginning in 2001, the weapon was exported throughout the world to equip a small number of special operations forces. According to Nic Jenzen-Jones, an Australia-based small arms and ammunition specialist, the rifle features a number of "attractive design features" -- notably the forward ejection of spent cartridge cases, ambidextrous design, and a well-integrated grenade launcher. Now, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government mulls a ground invasion of Gaza, Islamist insurgents are preparing to train these weapons on Israeli soldiers.

Nobody can say for sure how the FN F2000 ended up in the arsenal of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. According to the annual report published by the Belgian Walloon Region, the authority owning FN Herstal and issuing arms export licenses for it, the weapon was not exported to the Palestinian territories. FN Herstal confirmed that it did not sell the weapons directly to the Islamist group, as did the Walloon authority: "Wallonia obviously never issued licenses for an arms export to armed groups of this region," a Belgian Walloon government spokesperson said, adding that it would try to identify the origin of the weapons.

Luc Mampaey, director of the Belgian Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security, says the government's investigation efforts will likely be in vain. "There are more questions than answers here," he says. "It is impossible to trace the weapons based on the published photographs, as the serial numbers are not visible. We can only make assumptions."

The best assumption is that the weapons made their way to the Gaza Strip from war-torn Libya. In 2008, Libyan despot Muammar al-Qaddafi ordered 367 FN F2000s, as well as other small arms, to equip the 32nd Brigade, whose official mission was to "protect a humanitarian convoy to Darfur," according to court documents released when the export licenses were challenged by two NGOs. The reality, however, was far different: The elite unit served under the direct command of Qaddafi's son Khamis, who was renowned for human rights abuses even back in 2008 -- a reputation more than confirmed during the 2011 war. According to a U.N. report on the human rights situation in Libya, the 32nd Brigade was guilty of the killing of unarmed protesters, the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, and the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas during the conflict.

In 2009, the Belgian Walloon Region issued the export licenses FN Herstal needed, and the weapons were shipped to Libya. But in 2011, as the rebels gained ground, the Belgian shipment scattered across the country -- in February 2012, I saw FN F2000 rifles on sale for $5,000. Of course, the weapons proliferation is not limited to just the FN F2000: In November 2011, for example, the authorities of Niger seized a shipment of weapons, consisting of AK assault rifles and FN FAL rifles, on their way from Libya to Mali.

With the end of the Libyan war, many of these weapons began to make their way to the international market. Strife-ridden Gaza, of course, represented an eager market for such armaments: In June 2012, the Egyptian authorities seized Libyan weapons from arms traffickers trying to smuggle them into the tiny coastal enclave.

Without serial numbers to trace, the Libyan scenario remains merely a hypothesis. But the simultaneous presence of AK-103 assault rifles in the al-Quds parade makes it even more plausible. Nic Jenzen-Jones described on his website how the Libyan war was the rare conflict where both weapons appeared simultaneously -- and that the version of the FN F2000 seen in Gaza was similar to that sold to the Libyan army. "The F2000 rifles seen in Libya were sold and equipped with FN Herstal underbarrel 40x46mm grenade launchers, known as the LG1," he wrote. "The F2000s pictured in Gaza also sport LG1s."

Even a year after Qaddafi's fall, the dictator's poisonous legacy continues to live on in conflicts far and wide. Of course, these Belgian-made rifles are not as problematic as MANPADS, which may have also made their way from Libya to Gaza. But although they won't play a decisive role in the Gaza conflict, they do drive home the helplessness of arms-exporting countries in keeping track of the military equipment they sell. And if Egypt or Libya -- incensed over the Israeli crackdown in Gaza -- decide to turn a blind eye to the arms flow, the problem will only get worse.

It's a cautionary tale for countries looking to gain the edge on faraway battlefields by arming their local allies: In the next war, they might find their own weapons turned against them.

MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/GettyImages

Argument

The Guns of November

European politicians are talking tough about intervention in the Middle East. If only they had a plan.

In 1914, as a continent marched to war, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey made this mournful statement: "The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time." Nearly a century later, we might comparably observe that fires have been started all across the Middle East -- and we shall not see them put out in our time.

From Tehran to Tunis, from Aleppo to Benghazi to Cairo and now, of course and yet again, the streets of Gaza and Tel Aviv, the region is ablaze. No statesman, be he ever so powerful, can predict where the fire may spread. Far less can he control the burning.

The war between Israel and Hamas grips the world's attention like no other battle in the region and overshadows all else. But gruesomely compelling though it may be, it is sadly not the only show in town. Syria's own drama continues to run and run and one could forgive the Syrian opposition for wondering why the outside world is less interested in their tragedy than in those now unfolding elsewhere in the region.

The international community's attitude is best-summarized by a recent headline from America's most reliable news source, The Onion: "Having Gone This Far Without Caring About Syria, Nation To Finish What It Started." That may be about to change, however as European powers -- as such Britain and France insist they be deemed -- inch closer and closer to intervening in the Syrian tragedy.

They do so despite a palpable lack of public enthusiasm for the project. Bismarck's crack that the whole of the Balkans were "not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier" finds a contemporary echo too. Still smarting from the consequences of ill-fated expeditions to Afghanistan and Iraq, I doubt the British public considers Damascus or Aleppo worth the bones of a single Grenadier Guard. Syria is a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing -- and care about even less.

The public may retain a lofty disinterest in Syria's agonies but British and French politicians are not so shy. The French have already recognized the Syrian opposition as Syria's legitimate government-in-waiting-if-they-can-win-their-civil-war and it seems probable that the British will follow suit sooner rather than later. If this seems familiar it is because it is familiar. Last year's Libyan playbook is being dusted off for a repeat performance, this time in Syria.

Yet despite inching towards war, British and French agitation still resembles nothing so much as an unorthodox variation on the classic governmental mantra: Something Must Be Done. In this instance, the novelty is this: no Something has actually been identified.

There is talk of lifting the arms embargo that currently hampers the Syrian opposition's attempts to topple Bashar al-Assad's regime. There is talk too of establishing a "no-fly zone" in Syrian skies and yet more talk of creating -- and, presumably, defending -- "safe havens" within Syria. There is, you will gather, a lot of talk.

All of which leads one to suspect that the road to Damascus, like that to hell, is paved with good intentions. Fine words and noble sentiments are harmless enough provided they do not become the spur for reckless adventures that begin in the haze of sentiment and are likely to end in the fog of unintended consequences. Moreover, one cannot quite resist the doubtless ignoble thought that it is irresponsible for Britain and France to make promises they're in little position to deliver. Call it Operation Raising False Hope, if you like.

We must presume all this enthusiasm for fresh foreign adventures stems from the presumed success of the Libyan intervention. The generous desire to solve other people's problems is a bug that, once caught, rarely dies.

On Friday, Foreign Secretary William Hague met representatives of the Syrian opposition in London. The British government plainly wishes to help the Syrian rebels but is equally keen to vet them first. Or, as Hague, had it: "We need their assurances about being inclusive of all communities, we need to see they have genuine support throughout Syria if we are to take that important step of recognition. We should do so in full possession of the facts and on the basis of discussions with them. The meeting is an important component of that and we will continue to work on this over the next few days."

To which Hague added: "A military victory of one side over the other would be a long, expensive process in terms of human life. Our top priority remains achieving a diplomatic and political solution.... We cannot stand still and just say we will leave things as they are ... but how we respond has to be well-judged and well-thought through."

It may be true that a well-judged response is preferable to a hare-brained reaction but that largely depends upon your definition of what manner of response may be considered "well-judged" or "well-thought through." Especially since, like his colleagues in Paris, Hague's suggestion "we cannot stand still" might leave an innocent observer to presume that the matter has been pre-judged more than it has any chance of being well-judged.

Standing still and leaving Syria well alone is, of course, not just an option but also the most realistic approach to a problem that is neither of the West's making nor its solving.

Evidently, however, there exists some kind of intervention algorithm that determines the tipping point at which Western powers must become involved in an affair they had not previously considered any of their business. We can live with -- or, more accurately, ignore -- 20,000 deaths. But 30,000 corpses suddenly renders the situation intolerable.

In February, the British position at least had the virtue of clarity. According to Hague, Britain saw no need for a military response, not least because a "military intervention would have to be on a vastly greater scale than in Libya." By June, the looming failure of Kofi Annan's attempts to broker a solution to the conflict meant Britain, like other countries, "would have to consider other options for resolving the crisis." The fundamentals of the conflict have not changed but Britain's position has, as they say, evolved.

The instinct to do something -- anything -- is understandable. But it amounts, in this case, to gambling upon opposition forces of unproven class and form whose future actions, preferences, and ambitions are essentially unknowable. If governments are not good at picking winners in domestic matters, their record of doing so in foreign entanglements is even worse; if you thought this lesson had at last been learned you are, I'm afraid, very much mistaken.

The current search for something to do with regard to Syria represents mission-creep without an actual mission. According to Sir David Richards, chief of the defense staff and Britain's most senior general, "The humanitarian situation this winter I think will deteriorate and that may well provoke calls to intervene in a limited way." As if this was not enough of a hostage to events that lie outside Britain's control or even, necessarily, interest, he added: "There's no ultimately military reason why one shouldn't [intervene] and I know that all these options are, quite rightly, being examined." No wonder military intervention -- albeit intervention of an as yet undetermined type -- is not considered "impossible." If you sense a whiff of In the Loop -- Armando Iannucci's satire of the politics of the Iraq war -- you may not be wholly mistaken. When a politician says "war is unforeseeable" it means war is probably waiting round the corner.

Yet absent American support for intervention, what can Britain or France realistically achieve? They retain some diplomatic clout at the United Nations but unless the United States moves, neither China nor Russia seem likely to be persuaded to lift their objections to foreign intervention in Syria. Even if Moscow and Beijing were to change their minds (an unlikely scenario), the British and French are likely to need American logistical and military support if they're to achieve anything. In this respect, they are not so much writing checks they cannot cash as forging American checks and trusting that Washington will not mind honoring them. This seems a mildly reckless course of action.

Syria's plight is terrible; that much is clear. Yet intervention is not something the faint of heart should risk contemplating. Nevertheless, there are limits to what the Europeans can realistically achieve. Prime Minister David Cameron may be correct to observe that "Frankly, what we've done so far is not working" -- but at least what has been done so far has not made the Syrian situation appreciably worse. Syria is broken but it's not the West's responsibility. At least not yet. War without aims is almost as bad an idea as war without end. But if Western politicians cannot even agree on their aims how can they be trusted to navigate these treacherous waters?

Ben Stansall - WPA Pool/Getty Images