Reporting on the conflict in Syria, the BBC quoted British Foreign Secretary William Hague on May 28th saying there were “No restrictions of arming opposition force.” This statement was a rebuff of other EU member states seeking to delay until August any effort to provide military aid to the National Coalition Opposition and Revolutionary Forces in their two-year long conflict against the regime of Bashir Assad in Syria. The Irish Times on May 28th, quoted Hague as stating, “I know there has been some discussion of some sort of August deadline. That is not the case.” The Europeans should be commended for trying to assist the opposition in Syria. However, committing their states to providing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) military aid, and very likely providing advisers to allow the arms to be absorbed and used, will not be as easy as making bold statements as Secretary Hague’s. A two-month delay for further review of the situation seems reasonable under current circumstances.
The most basic problem with supplying arms to the FSA is the presence of known al-Qaida affiliated groups and militant Islamic fighters within its ranks. Arming the FSA will mean arming the terrorists among them. Yet, beyond that major hurdle, there are other rarely mentioned issues to consider.
Based on reports from news outlets of record his year alone, the FSA has enormous shortages across te board from rifles and grenades to helmets and uniforms. Equipping the FSA with even the most basic arms will require sending in country advisers to train the fighters in their use. Some fighters may have had military training they received as conscripts in the Syrian Army. However, given the performance of the Syrian Army in the civil war to date, it is hard to imagine those fighters from the same army possessing anything more than rudimentary skills as soldiers or none whatsoever if they served in combat support or combat service support units. Equipping and training Iraqi and Afghan force proved quite daunting. It is difficult to assess now whether working to ramp up FSA capabilities would be amy easier.
How the arms would be brought into Syria is another issue. The Europeans may choose to make clandestine deliveries in country by air to ensure delivery to specific FSA units or use land routes already used to deliver nonlethal, medical aid to the FSA. The Russians can fly weapons into the country at will. Yet, Syria may prove to be a truly non-permissive environment for the Europeans if Russian S-300s are fully operational and are used to shoot down European transports by the Syrian Army. Delivering weapons in country may lead to direct engagements between advisers and the Syrian Army or place European advisers under the Syrian Army’s artillery batteries, rockets, and mortars, leading to casualties among them.
Once the FSA receives the European’s weapons, they must use their current have a plan to integrate their use into its military strategy. It is conceivable that the Supreme Military Council and the FSA under General Salim Idriss would continue to engage in gun battles and skirmishes in villages, towns and cities, and commit their units piecemeal in an effort to gain territory. A plan would need to be devised to teach the FSA commanders new tactics and techniques, and better procedures for managing things.
If a decison is made to march the newly armed FSA on Damascus “to protect civilians” by removing Assad, it is uncertain whether the Europeans would provide the FSA close air support to cover its movement and strike at Syrian Army strongholds in depth. A no-fly-zone could be establsihed to keep the Syrian Air Force from destroying FSA units as they moved during the day and night would be helpful, too.
Before any of that is at issue, the Europeans must decide which states will pay for the arms being delivered and which would provide the advisers. They will also need to decide which states, from however many sill have that capability, will provide transport for the arms shipments. The costs may prove to be prohibitive for some states.
However, the most dangerous issue for European capitals to contend with is the presence of Russian and Iranian advisers on the ground in Syria, and Hezbollah, for different reasons. Once the European advisers begin to arrive with the weapons shipments, the Russians will assess the situation and very likely send the Syrian Army bigger and better weapons. The number of Russian advisers on the ground may increase. The Russians must have a considerable number of advisers and soldier on the ground to activate the S-300s and protect Russian interests. Recall that the Russians have been in Syria since Soviet days. If the Syrian Army finds itself in trouble, Russian commanders on the ground may very well take control of Syrian Army operations as advisers. Accurate estimates of Russian advisers in Syria are difficult to develop given the Russians never discuss such matters publicly. If Russian advisers were attacked, the Russians would respond in devastating manner, using Syrian Army heavy weapons at their disposal.
The Iranians are said to have around 4000 fighters in Syria. That matches the estimate for their presence in Bosnia from 1994-1995. If the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iranian special forces marched on the battlefield, they would have a multiplier effect for the Syrian Army. Consider the problems Israel encountered facing their units in Lebanon in 2006. More so than the Russians, the Iranians are committed to the Assad regime’s victory. In fact, this is the very battle the Iranians want. If they can hurt the Europeans in Syria, the Europeans, most likely in their view, would be less likely to support with forces, any future operations against Iran.
Hezbollah would be the wildcard on the ground. Its fighters are already operation alongside the Syrian Army. European advisers moving around in Syria would become high-value targets for direct action and possibly martyrdom operations. It would be tragic.
It is difficult to imagine that the Europeans could afford to provide military aid for the coflict in Syria. While political will my exist, popular support and the financial wherewithal may not. Arms deliveries to the FSA could drag them into a war by inertia. European capital will not be up for supporting big battles and possibly incurring significant losses among it most capable soldiers. European leaders must be absolutely certain the te conflict would not get beyond civil war to become actual fighting with Russia and Iran. They certainly do not want their troops open to terror attacks on the roads of the tons and villages by Hezbollah. Luckily, some European capitals will give the matter of military aid a closer look between now and August before they find themselves caught in something they do not want to be in.