Syria’s Conflict: What Happens if Both Sides Get More Weapons?


Syria’s civil war reportedly has killed more than 90,000 people, and it looks like both sides are on the way to acquiring heavier weaponry, even as the United States and Russia are attempting to bring them together for talks.

The European Union is on track to letting an arms embargo on rebels expire this year. Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says Russia is supplying the army with anti-aircraft rockets.

These developments are occurring as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are pressing to get both sides to reach a negotiated political settlement at a Geneva 2 convention this month. However, making the situation more complex, the Syrian government says any deal must pass a referendum within the country, and the Syrian National Coalition wants a guarantee before the meeting that Assad will leave office.

What will equipping the rebels and Syrian army with heavier weaponry mean for the more than two-year conflict? We asked several specialists on Syria for their thoughts:

Elizabeth O’Bagy 
Senior research analyst who specializes in Syrian politics and security at the Institute for the Study of War

Despite the expiration of the EU arms embargo on the Syrian opposition, it remains unlikely that any European countries will actively look to arm opposition forces. Instead, the decision was meant to put pressure on the Assad regime ahead of the upcoming negotiations.

However, the intended pressure seems to have backfired, and instead the decision has in fact allowed for a more aggressive stance from Russia and the Syrian government in moving forward on their own arms contracts. It is clear that while the EU is not ready to arm the opposition, Russia is ready to arm the Assad regime. To this end, the regime’s calculated pattern of escalation will continue while the international community struggles to respond.

With the current balance of power on the ground, it is unlikely that the Syrian government will feel enough pressure to bargain in good faith and make concessions during the upcoming negotiations. While undoubtedly an increase in arms to either side of the conflict will escalate the violence inside Syria and could have the potential of fueling a sort of arms race with dangerous consequences, something must be done to create greater military parity on the ground. Negotiations in Geneva will amount to little given the current power asymmetry. Providing weapons to the opposition forces isn’t meant to enable the rebels to overwhelmingly defeat the Assad regime, but instead to achieve some military gains on the ground that would make Assad more willing to concede.

Overall, Russia’s decision to fulfill its arms contract to Syria means the continuation of Assad’s military onslaught, while the lack of a decision by the EU to actively arm the opposition means that the rebels’ inferiority on the battlefield will result in the death of Geneva negotiations and the likely dominance of terrorist fighters in Syria.

Joshua Landis 
Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and an associate professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma

More arms will certainly lead to more killing in the short run, but if the Western countries are willing to go toe to toe with Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, they can certainly give better arms and provide more lethal air power, which is what the rebels are asking for.

The question is whether the rebels can be trained to use them more effectively than the Syria Army and Hezbollah and whether the rebels can unify to establish a responsible and centrally commanded fighting force. The record of factionalism and infighting among the rebel militias, which some say exceed 1,000 in number, is not reassuring. What is more, the most effective rebel fighting groups are Islamist and decidedly anti-Western. The West has a hard task ahead in distinguishing which forces are “moderate” and in turning them into a unified, dependable and effective fighting force.

Steven Heydemann 
Senior adviser for Middle East initiatives at the U.S. Institute of Peace

For much of the past year, debate in Europe and the United States about whether to provide weapons to the Syrian opposition has pitted those who argue that increasing military pressure on the Assad regime is needed to change the regime’s strategic calculus and compel it to enter negotiations against those concerned that more weapons will simply make things worse.

Until recently, the resilience and recalcitrance of the Assad regime, the spread of violence to neighboring states, and a rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis within Syria were eroding resistance to arming Syria’s rebels. Among EU member states and in the United States, concerns about arming the opposition faded as conditions on the ground made it increasingly difficult to argue that Western weapons could possibly make things worse.

John Kerry’s appointment as secretary of state has upended this debate. Instead of using weapons to increase pressure on the Assad regime and force it to the table, Kerry is holding out the threat of providing weapons in the future as an inducement to the Assad regime to negotiate. Negotiate now, or we’ll send weapons later has replaced the position that sending weapons now will lead to meaningful negotiations later.

This is a significant shift. It suggests that the EU’s recent decision to permit its embargo on weapons to Syria to lapse will not bring about any near-term change in the current posture of EU states, which, like the U.S., refuse to arm the opposition, at least until it is clear whether Kerry’s diplomatic initiative will succeed or not. As a result, the current imbalance in military capacity between the regime and the opposition is only likely to grow, to the opposition’s detriment.

Kerry’s shift is also very risky. In the past month, the Assad regime has gone on the offensive. With direct military support from Hezbollah and Iran, and with Russia providing diplomatic cover and threatening additional arms shipments to the regime, the opposition has been pushed out of several strategic locations; its hold on others is under attack. As the regime gains ground, and gains confidence, the idea of changing its strategic calculus seems increasingly implausible.

Further, to prevent Western weapons from reaching the opposition, all Assad has to do is participate in a negotiating process, which is easily subject to delay and manipulation — tactics the regime has mastered — while continuing to advance on the ground. Since the U.S. and its European allies have not provided any clarity about the conditions under which the U.S. and its European allies would conclude that the negotiations have failed, they risk giving the Assad regime veto power over a Western decision to arm the rebels.

It is not far-fetched to imagine a scenario in which, under the cover of negotiations, the Syrian uprising is gradually repressed by the combined power of the regime and its Lebanese and Iranian allies, using Russian weapons. Are the United States and the EU prepared to accept this outcome?

Andrew Tabler 
Senior fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute

Russia’s supplying of the Syrian regime with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles would make it much more difficult for anyone but the Syrian regime to fly over Syria and directly curtail U.S. and allies options in setting up no-fly or safe zones. It would allow the regime to continue to use the full extent of its arsenal to shoot its way out of this crisis.

The introduction of more weapons to the opposition will be complicated. On the one hand, more light and more sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons will make the rebels more effective against Assad’s forces and help them push Assad’s forces back. The downside risk of this move, of course, is the possibility that such weapons could fall into the hands of Salafist and extremist Islamic groups active in Syria, including Jebhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate.

But Washington and Europe are not going into this blind. For the better part of a year, Washington and its allies have evaluated and vetted armed groups in Syria. Many of those groups are included in the list of leaders in the Supreme Military Council (SMC), a collection of commanders and other army defectors organized along five fronts throughout Syria. Had this groups been backed last summer, as was originally proposed by former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, among others, is likely Assad would be in far worse a position and the more moderate members of the SMC would be in a stronger position.

Unfortunately, Washington dithered far too long and those on the far right end of the Islamist spectrum grew in stature and capability as they came to the Syrian people’s aid when no one else would, at least in terms of lethal assistance. Some of those inside the SMC have shifted toward the right as well and have deepening relationships with Salafists and other who could have closer relationships with Jebhat al-Nusra and groups like it.

So what should Washington do? As I argue in “Syria’s Collapse”, an essay in the July-August edition of Foreign Affairs, Washington should experiment with tried and trusted non-Salafists within the SMC structure, most notably more secular provincial military council leaders who have connections to Washington and have experience dealing with and imposing limits on Salafists and other Islamists. This move, combined with enforcing red lines on Assad concerning chemical weapons and surface to surface missiles and establishing safe zones, are likely to make negotiations with Russia much more fruitful.

It’s time Washington realized that the diplomatic track, while important to keep open, is something that is likely to work later rather than sooner in solving the Syria crisis.

Related Resources

  • Henri Barkey of Lehigh University and Steve Heydemann of the U.S. Institute for Peace discussed how the international community could collaborate on ending the Syrian civil war in this May 16 PBS NewsHour report:


  • Filmmaker Olly Lambert talked about his travels to Syria including the Orontes River Valley, where Sunnis live on one side of the river and Alawites on the other, in this April 9 interview.

  • See all of the NewsHour’s Syria coverage.

This week, senior correspondent Margaret Warner is reporting from Lebanon on the effects of the Syrian conflict.

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