In September 1991, as violence spread through the Balkans, Yugoslavia’s helpless foreign minister, Budimir Loncar, requested that the United Nations Security Council establish a global arms embargo that would apply to all parties in the conflict. His request remains, to my knowledge, the only example of a government demanding that sanctions be imposed on its own country.
In theory, the move was an act of neutrality designed to contain the violence. In fact, the embargo — which I supported at the time — consolidated the Bosnian Serbs’ overwhelming superiority of arms due to their access to the stockpiles of the Yugoslav National Army. Its effect was to make Bosnian Muslim communities much weaker in the face of the Bosnian Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing, illustrated most tragically by the massacre at Srebrenica.
Today, some 20 years after the outbreak of the Balkans wars, Western policymakers are faced with a similar dilemma — whether the provision of arms to a party in conflict will be used in self defense or to commit atrocities and revenge attacks; whether it will hasten the resolution of a conflict or encourage its prolongation. And we are now making the same mistake in Syria as was made during the Bosnian conflict.
I accept that Western military combat in Syria would be mistaken. Unlike the NATO-supported action in Libya, there is no prospect of Russia ending its veto in the Security Council. Nor has the Arab League called for such action, as it did with the rising against Muammar el-Qaddafi.
This does not mean, however, that the United States and Europe can and should do nothing. It was right to try to pursue a diplomatically brokered political settlement through the United Nations, but this process foundered on President Bashar al-Assad’s continued brutality. With the diplomatic route blocked, and Syria’s rebels managing to strike at the heart of the regime in Damascus and Aleppo, the war has moved into a potentially much bloodier phase, which could draw in some if not all of Syria’s neighbors.
We must now consider a series of extremely grim scenarios: fighting in Lebanon inflaming sectarian tensions in that country; the pilfering of Syria’s chemical weapons either by another state or nonstate actor; the total collapse of Syria and a violent free-for-all in the resulting power vacuum.
In order to prevent these possibilities we must press for unity in the Syrian opposition. Structures that encourage communication and cooperation between rebel factions are necessary, both for their war effort and for the period of transition that will follow Assad’s eventual departure.
The longer war drags on, the more likely a legitimate struggle for self-determination will descend further into a cycle of communal violence, poisoning the possibility of a mutually acceptable political settlement. Without such a settlement, Syrian and regional violence will continue — whether the Ba’athist regime survives or not.
It is not sufficient to hector the rebels to “get their act together.” The Americans and the Europeans need leverage, and for leverage they must provide meaningful incentives. This should come in the form of arms supplies to the Syrian insurgents if they can show real progress toward creating a united opposition. This would require a modification of the European Union’s arms embargo. Unlike the U.N. arms embargo in Bosnia, this decision is not at the mercy of a Russian or Chinese veto.
Supplying arms in a civil war will always be controversial and in the short term would lead to greater fighting and more deaths. But it would also ensure the collapse of the Assad regime in weeks rather than months. We should not assume that high-profile defections such as that of Prime Minister Riyad Hijab spell the imminent collapse of the regime — the core of Syria’s security state remains intact. The longer this war lasts the greater overall carnage there will be.
Arming the Syrian insurgents is not an attractive strategy. Providing arms to be used in combat never is. There would be serious risks. But we can already see that the alternative is far worse. The Syrian people need the tools so that they can finish the job of removing this cruel regime.
Malcolm Rifkind served as Britain’s defense minister and foreign secretary under Prime Minister John Major.