The Facilitators: Military Assistance to Syria is Indicative of a Bigger, Older Problem

Ciaran Gillespie is a PhD Candidate in the School of Politics

Recent reports that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has successfully shot down a Syrian Air Force jet have perhaps come as a surprise to many as this is no small feat for an irregular band of fighters. The jet was a Mig-23BN Soviet-produced aircraft of the type that had just days before been used to bomb militant positions in the east of Allepo, killing and injuring dozens of civilians in the process.  The successful downing of such a potentially destructive tool in the Assad regime’s arsenal is perhaps symbolic of the struggle of the rebels in the conflict, illustrating the vast gulf in material war making capabilities between the two sides. While Syria’s MIG jets are a hangover from its support from the Soviet Union during the Cold War (Gaddafi had approximately 50 of these jets as well), Assad’s position has continued to be bolstered by Russian military aid. As Hilary Clinton stated recently: ‘They have from time to time said that we shouldn’t worry, everything they’re shipping is unrelated to [Syrian] actions internally. That’s patently untrue and we are concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically’. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded to such criticism by admitting that indeed weapons had been sent but assured concerned parties that they could not be used against the population, echoing similar, rather baffling denials made by the US as it shipped weapons to Mubarak during the Egyptian uprising and likewise from the UK when shipping arms to Bahrain.

Another worrying development has been the build-up of Russian marines in the port city of Tartus. While ostensibly for the protection of the nearby naval base and the possible evacuation of over 30,000 Russian personnel in the country, they nevertheless draw attention to the taut underlying  geo-politics of the situation.

Military aid and personnel support have also been arriving from Tehran, as the unfolding hostage crisis forced Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi to admit this week. Iran is accused of sending as many as 15,000 revolutionary guards to help the Assad regime put down the uprising. While there is little concrete information about the capacity in which those troops might have been deployed, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has iterated the Pentagon’s view that they are in Syria to train a Shiite militia, a paramilitary force designed to lighten the load of the regular Syrian army. The implicit worry for those listening to such an announcement is that pro-state militias in civil conflicts such as this are all too often the means by which the real ‘dirty work’ is done (if one can imagine such an escalation in regards to the Assad regime’s horrific survival strategy).

While the major powers and the United Nations desperately scramble for face-saving solutions to the crisis, the time for a discussion of ‘lessons learned’ will come eventually and interested parties in all states which have entangled themselves in the conflict (and there are a lot) should be as active as possible. As my background is in the study of external military assistance programmes, I’d like to make two fairly basic observations.

The first and most obvious is that we should take notice of the serious repercussions that may ensue if you threaten any state with war over a long period of time, as has been the case for Iran for the last 10 years. Under Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”. The threat of war against a sovereign state is illegal for a good reason; the constant threat of war is, as Kant put it, indistinguishable from war itself, permitting the threatened party to act accordingly under such conditions. The regime of Ahmadinejad has been pushed into a corner, in a Middle East that has fewer and fewer potential allies (even Hamas has vowed to stay neutral in any war with Israel) this behaviour is most certainly defensive. We might find Iran has to be more forthcoming in appeals for it to stop supporting reprehensible regimes if it does not have recourse to the reason (or excuse, depending on your point of view) that it constantly feel its very existence is under threat.

The second and more difficult issue to deal with is the question of the substantial Russian military assistance. While Iran might be supplying some extra manpower, it is the Russians who have over the years helped build the regime’s capacity to make war on its own population. This didn’t happen overnight, building the security forces of a repressive regime takes many years and what’s more, is completely normal behaviour for industrial military powers.

There is no argument about moral equivalence here; military aid gifted from the Kremlin is no different in character or intention than any number of similar programmes run by the US over the years in Colombia, Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan (although Russia’s aid to Syria would be dwarfed in size by any one of them). We are perfectly aware that few militarily powerful states have clean hands when it comes to foreign sales. In 1999 Tony Blair’s ‘ethical foreign policy’ came under fire from human rights campaigners after it was announced that £150 million of tax-payers’ money would be given to Indonesia to facilitate payment for British Hawk jets, all while Indonesian-backed militias were massacring large swathes of the East Timorese population. More recently, despite admonishment of its security services by Amnesty International over excessive use of force and use of torture, David Cameron has enthusiastically championed an increase in UK arms exports to Indonesia.

The cooperation, training and supply of weapons to paramilitaries has become standard in the War on Terror and has played a significant role in withdrawal plans in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the last several years in Somalia all manner of weapons, Special Forces training personnel, private military contractors and mercenaries have been supplied to militias backed by the US and some of its allies in an attempt to bring down an Islamic proto-government.

The ability of militarily powerful states to build up the security forces of another unilaterally, especially when that state has internal legitimacy issues is a major obstacle for any democratisation movement. Regimes all over the world have a potential for violence which far outweighs their own capacity for weapons production. We understand that proliferation of many types of weapon cannot be permitted (nuclear/chemical/biological) but we must also understand that these are not the weapons facing the democratisation movements we have seen in moments like that of the Arab Spring; they are small arms, bullets, bombs and mortars. Anyone following the struggles of those working under the Control Arms Campaign in support of a new UN treaty on arms control can see that there is indeed a push for an international agreement, but much like the Kyoto replacement, the reluctance is coming from the producers rather than those who suffer the effects of the product.

In short, there is substantial logistical support available to Assad from those allies who see the regime as necessary for maintaining stability in theMiddle East. This should come as no surprise to NATO or anyone else concerned about the plight of Syrians as it is behaviour that has been normalised by states like the US and UK for decades. While it might be too late to prevent the dictator Assad from arming himself to the teeth, the spectre of future resource-related proxy conflicts looms large over many parts of the world and parties seeking to about solutions should start engaging with the arms control movement in a substantive way.