Lightly Arming Syrian Opposition is U.S.’ Best Option

Recent Features


Lightly Arming Syrian Opposition is U.S.’ Best Option

Providing light anti-tank weaponry and non-lethal support for the opposition could help end the violence in Syria.

The media presents daily reports of the escalating violence in Syria. There have been confirmed reports of mass executions by the regime. Women are being raped and men are disappearing.

Thousands of civilians and combatants are dying from shelling and firefights every day. The cities of Homs, Damascus, and Aleppo, among others, stand in ruins. Russia and China continue to block UN action in the Security Council. Thus far in the Arab uprisings, America has taken the successful approach of developing the situation from the outside to ensure the revolutions maintain their own national character. The threat of chemical weapons makes any ground intervention more difficult. America should build on past success and break the Syria stalemate by arming the Syrian opposition with anti-tank weaponry and non-lethal supplies.

It is well-known the Assad regime possesses a large stockpile of chemical weapons. They’ve been manufacturing them domestically for decades. A regime spokesman stated chemical weapons could be used against any outside invasion force, though the statement was later walked back. Even for well-equipped and trained militaries such as America’s, conducting operations in a lethal nerve agent environment multiplies the difficulty level and will greatly increase casualties in ground combat. An invasion of Syria is a much more difficult prospect than some imagine.

The same regime spokesman asserted Syria would not use chemical weapons on their own people, no matter the situation. Contaminating large swathes of countryside, effective when necessary against outside invasions, is undesirable domestically. It can present short and long-term contamination hazards for people, animals, crops, and water, not to mention the international mores it would break. Outside of Saddam Hussein, even brutal dictators have hesitated to use these weapons. The Syrian regime using nerve agents could lead to evaporation of Russian or Chinese support.

Arming the Syrian opposition is a better option. The Assad regime has shown no hesitation in using artillery and armor against the Syrian people. Equipping Syrian rebels with light anti-tank weapons such as RPG-7s will allow them to combat the regime’s T-55 and T-72 tanks. RPG-7s and lighter anti-tank weaponry are not capable of penetrating U.S. M1 Abrams tanks.

The Middle East is already awash in such weaponry so America wouldn’t be introducing anything new. Getting them quickly and directly into the hands of Syrian resistance fighters will bring the timely turning point needed to end the violence. Keeping an eye on the future after the Assad regime falls, America should stop short of providing small-arms weaponry, such as machine guns which may be used in the turmoil after the regime falls.

The U.S. should provide the opposition with non-lethal effects as well. Providing radio and other equipment to opposition commanders will allow them to coordinate their forces locally and nationally. Medical and food supplies are vital as well as the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate. Providing such supplies directly to Syrians already on the ground will get them closer to those who need them as America and its allies develop a coordinated response to the humanitarian situation following the fighting.

Providing light anti-tank weaponry and other non-lethal support for the opposition combined with continued international diplomatic and economic pressure on the regime, followed by a coordinated international humanitarian response to the aftermath, is America’s best course to end the Syria stalemate.

Christopher Miller is a Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He blogs at Truman Doctrine, where this piece originally appeared.