Bashar al-Assad’s regime is in its twilight hours. The Syrian insurrection has lasted nearly 18 months, and the end is in sight. Or, at least, the end of the “rebels vs Assad” phase of what, with 19,000 dead, can only be called a civil war.
The rebels have graduated from mere guerilla warfare. Last week, the defense minister, a senior general, and Assad’s feared brother-in-law were all killed in one fell swoop; the bombing smelled like an inside-job, meaning Assad’s allies are growing few and far between. Fighting has spread to Damascus, the capital, and to the largest city, Aleppo. This is not just sporadic gunfire, but real, bloody, daily fighting. Border crossing stations are being seized by the rebels, letting more lethal weapons seep through the porous Turkish border. Hundreds of defectors join the resistance every day. On all fronts, the rebels are advancing.
And it’s about time that the United States embraced it. This week, rebel commanders boldly claimed that they could topple the Assad government before the end of Ramadan – if the United States provided them with some genuine fire power. To be sure, the U.S. government has called for Assad to step-down, enumerated his human rights abuses, etc., etc. But words don’t win wars — weapons do. Russia and China have (disgustingly) vetoed three sanction regimens, and the former has poured weapons into the old Soviet client-state.
The United States’ hesitance to arm the rebels a few months ago was well-founded. We’ve gambled before and lost: take arming the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. Are some rebels just glorified jihadists? Will a deluge of sectarian violence into the Golan Heights follow the fall of Assad? Who will the rebels arm in turn? Are the rebels just out for blood? Will the Alawites, the Shiite minority sect to which Assad belongs, fall victim to ethnic cleansing? No one knows.
But it’s not a few months ago, it’s now. The rebels have come too far to turn around, and the United Nations’ inchoate ceasefire plan spearheaded by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan is in shambles. What’s clear is that Assad will fall, sooner or later. And it should be sooner. Arming some rebels doesn’t mean you’ve bought their loyalty – but it helps. Once Assad falls, the conflict will rapidly devolve into its “rebels vs rebels” phase, which promises to be a sectarian bloodbath. The United States could forestall this by assiduously determining which rebels are the “good guys” (I’d be surprised if this wasn’t already being done), and to arm them to the tooth. Presumably, we’d then have some allies in the coming maelstrom. In Egypt, the United States lost its credibility when it continued to fund Mubarak’s regime until the bitter end and came out in support of the people only very late in the game. We shouldn’t make this mistake again — overtly supporting some rebels would make sure that we do not. By arming some of the rebels we could also help coronate a leader of the opposition, which to date is composed of many factions jockeying for control, allowing for a less tumultuous future power transition.
And this move wouldn’t hurt us on the international stage. Russia supports Assad because they enjoy having a client-state in the Middle East, because they have their own problems with Muslim revolutionaries in Chechnya, and because Putin feels a sense of camaraderie with sclerotic despots like himself. But Putin knows Assad is tap-dancing on thin ice and would probably acquiesce in exchange for a role in the coming Western state-creation field-day when the regime finally does fall.
Ultimately, the United States can no longer be tone deaf to the realities of the Syrian conflict. I realize that the stakes are high. Assad sits on the largest chemical and biological weapons stockpile in the Middle East. With his fall, those weapons would need to be secured. Hezbollah was the brain-child of Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, and Iran. Many analysts wonder if Assad’s swan song would be to share his toys with Hezbollah before he goes. He could just turn his chemical weapons on the rebels. He could just massacre a few thousand more civilians. Before he can do so, Assad must go. And he will go. It’s just a matter of when and with whom he will be replaced. By being a bit more proactive, the United States could have a lot of influence in those arenas.