In response to non-violent protests calling for reform, the Baathist regime in Damascus has brought Syria bloodshed, chaos, and created the conditions in which jihadism thrives. The now partially armed revolution is doing its best to roll back the bloodshed and to eliminate the regime that perpetrates it.
Yet Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch, one of the more perceptive analysts of the Middle East, argues that after more than 60,000 lives have been lost, "the last year should be a lesson to those who called for arming the rebels." In a previous article, Lynch noted, "Syrian armed groups are now awash with weapons."
Anyone laboring under the delusion that pro-revolution foreign powers have flooded Syria with hi-tech weaponry should scroll through the blog of New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers or peruse the web pages displaying improvised catapult bombs and PlayStation-controlled armored cars. These are hardly the tools of a fighting force that has been armed to the teeth.
While it's true that some armed groups -- particularly the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra -- have sometimes found themselves in possession of plenty of weaponry, the resistance remains overwhelmingly dependent on the weapons it can buy, steal, or seize from captured checkpoints and bases.
Simply put, the assumptions of those who called for arming the rebels have not been tested because the rebels have not been armed -- except in irrelevant, sporadic and, in Lynch's words, "poorly coordinated" ways. For instance, an ammunition shortage slowed the original rebel advance in Aleppo to a destructive halt.
Yes, the Saudis and Qataris distributed some light weapons -- each according to their own interests, which only compounded the disorganization of rebel forces. The United States has held them back from providing heavy weapons, which could have made a difference against tanks and aircraft. In any case, the Arab Gulf states are also manipulating the Syrian conflict for their own ends: The Saudi tactic seems to be to slowly bleed Iran in Syria in the manner of the Iran-Iraq war rather than to push for a rapid revolutionary victory.
NATO's Patriot missile deployment in Turkey, which will only be used to stop missiles crossing the Turkish border rather than to establish a no-fly zone in Syria, sums up the broader thrust of Gulf and Western policy: a vain effort to quarantine the Syrian problem rather than to allow the revolution to come quickly to its natural conclusion.
In October and November, rebels did acquire man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), which were almost certainly seized from over-run regime bases. A number of regime planes and helicopters were then shot down, prompting media talk of yet another tipping point. But now the MANPADS have dried up, and Syria's cities and villages have been returned to the unending grind of aerial bombardment.
A steady, well-coordinated supply of anti-aircraft weaponry would have liberated parts of northern Syria from these bombs, which pulverize both infrastructure and human life. Refugees could have returned from Turkey. The Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella organization for opposition groups, could have made a real effort to coordinate governance and food supplies in these areas, and warlordism would have been weakened. Rebuilding could have started. Schools could have reopened. But there was no supply, and as a result northern Syria is dying.
"It's too late to avoid the militarization of the conflict or to prevent the sidelining of non-armed groups," Lynch writes. While this statement is entirely true, it fails to take account of the enormous and continuing disparity between the sides. Not only is the regime far better armed and organized than the resistance militias, it is also by far the most destructive force in the country, by far the greater killer of civilians. At this point, it's not unusual for 1,000 civilians to be killed in a week. Bombs are not dropped on bread lines or petrol queues as a battle tactic, but to murder, terrorize, and demoralize the unarmed population.