The United States government is coming around to the idea of providing meaningful support to Syria’s rebel army. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the U.S. has to “rethink all options,” including providing arms to the rebels, after indications that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against its citizens.
The families of the approximately 80,000 people who died since the civil war began in 2011 may wish that help had come sooner. But it’s not too late to swing the balance of the civil war in the rebels’ favor, save many more lives than have already perished and generate some goodwill in a region where friends of the United States have become somewhat hard to find.
The U.S. could desperately use a popularity boot in the Middle East, if for no other reason than to better protect the Israelis, and we could get that with a material intervention in the Syrian conflict. And arming the rebels is the right thing to do. The Syrian people have already taken the first step in throwing off the shackles of an oppressive, dictatorial socialist government, but an all-out war against a state that has backing like Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has is not winnable for a poorly equipped rebel army.
The general population of Syria outnumbers the state military and government loyalists, but they are vastly outgunned. The rebels don’t need communications equipment — they need weapons, ammunition and artillery. There have been enough defections from the Syrian army that the rebels can fight the fight on their own, but they can’t do it without outside ordnance.
Foreign policy and defense personnel in the U.S. government have sidestepped the question of arming the rebels in the past by citing an uneasiness that weapons could “fall into the wrong hands.” But the weapons that are already in Syria were in the wrong hands from the beginning. Al-Assad has the backing of the worst reactive regimes and groups in the region. The Iranian government loves him — that should tell us all we need to know. The Israeli military bombed a shipment of “advanced missiles” that were being transported through Syria en route to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon on Thursday, according to a New York Times article.
The rebel army is loosely organized, it’s true. And a boots-on-the-ground intervention in the Middle East has proved to be an uncertain proposition for the U.S., especially when given the lengthy conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq as an example. But that does not absolve the U.S. of its responsibility as a bastion of democracy and freedom to support movements that seek to end oppression around the globe.