The case for arming the Syrian opposition
The U.S. secretary of state should have more to say than simply that anti-Assad forces will 'somewhere, somehow, find the means to defend themselves'

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  • With #Syria, the US is in danger of repeating the mistake made 20 years ago when we refused to arm the Bosnians

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While the slaughter continues in Syria, the U.S. is in danger of repeating the mistake made 20 years ago when we refused to arm the Bosnians. We left them at the mercy of Serb militias for three horrendous years with well upward of 100,000 deaths, until finally—after the massacre at Srebrenica and thousands more dead—NATO was forced to intervene directly and send 60,000 peacekeepers.

There may be a way to avoid such a scenario in Syria. Yet today, while Iran, Russia and China—the new authoritarian capitalists—solidly support Bashar al-Assad's brutality, the U.S. seems capable of nothing more than rhetorical condemnations and sanctions, neither of which can possibly persuade the Syrian regime to surrender power. Apparently that's why Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, declared that the recent "Friends of Syria" conference in Tunis did "not meet the aspirations of the Syrian people."

Although the U.S. has concluded that the viciousness of the Assad regime toward its own people exceeds anything that we can tolerate, we are paralyzed by fear that intervening to strengthen the opposition will escalate the violence and leave post-Assad Syria even more devastated and fragmented.

The U.S. has an unexcelled capability to train, equip and organize indigenous forces. Employing that capability, along with our NATO allies, to support the Syrian opposition can end the conflict more quickly and help limit violence and extremism in the aftermath.

In the past, we struck a bad bargain with the "devil we knew," the Assad regime, out of fear of the devil we didn't. Thus, while the Syrian regime provided Iran with its principal ally in the Middle East, actively destabilized Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories—and facilitated the movement of suicide bombers to Iraq to kill Iraqis and Americans—the U.S. did nothing to promote change in Syria, not even peaceful democratic change.

The earlier fear of what might follow an Assad regime was not unreasonable, but that was no reason to let it get away with murder, literally, in Iraq, in Lebanon and at home. Today, there is real reason for concern about what the violence in Syria is doing to the fabric of a society already weakened by decades of dictatorial rule. Yet keeping the opposition weak is a recipe for prolonging the conflict, meaning more people killed, more scores to settle, and more power in the hands of armed fighters.

Strengthening the Syrian opposition is not an obstacle to a peaceful end to this conflict. To the contrary, it may be the only way to achieve one. By now, the one incentive that might persuade the regime to step down would be the prospect of a safe exit. But that will only work if its alternative is defeat. For that, the Syrian opposition needs a full range of moral, political and material support.

Moral support is important. Recognition by the world, and particularly the leading democracies, of the heroism of the Syrian people can encourage them to continue their struggle in the face of overwhelming odds. Political support and active engagement with all elements of the opposition is also important—especially if it can help the opposition convince others, particularly minorities like the Christians and Alawites, that they will be safe in a post-Assad Syria.

But moral and political support are no substitute for material support. Words of praise and encouragement ring hollow when the U.S. and other governments sit on their hands and fail to provide even the simplest things, like medical supplies. The promise of material assistance, including financial assistance, might persuade the opposition to unite behind a coherent political program. In the absence of such support, the opposition is already starting to fragment.

Material support involves more than weapons. Perhaps the most urgent need is for communications equipment and technology. The Assad regime understands this and does everything possible to block communications among opposition groups as well as simple news reports. The U.S. has extraordinary capabilities in this area that should be brought to bear.

While the details of those capabilities can't be discussed publicly, it should be possible to announce that the U.S. is providing communications assistance to the opposition. Unfortunately, the official silence on this subject suggests that we are not.

Financial support and medical supplies also are crucial. After nearly a year and thousands of casualties, there is still no organized effort to supply medical assistance on the scale that is needed. It is a cruel joke to say that the U.N. is waiting for agreement on a cease-fire so that humanitarian aid can be delivered.

Material support must also include weapons. But that does not mean tanks or artillery or other weapons that would escalate the violence. What the opposition needs are defensive weapons so it can protect its own people, particularly defectors from the Syrian army.

Such defections are the best way to weaken and defeat the regime, but it will be hard to encourage defections to unarmed opposition groups that lack even basic antitank weaponry and other means of self-defense. Safe havens established along Syria's borders with Turkey, Jordan and perhaps other countries could also facilitate defections, as well as the delivery of humanitarian supplies.

The bottom line: If the opposition remains weak, we may end up facing the difficult choice between intervening militarily ourselves, as became necessary in Libya, or watching and doing nothing while the Syrian regime repeats the horror of Srebrenica.

The U.S. secretary of state should be given something better to say than simply that the Syrian opposition will "somewhere, somehow, find the means to defend themselves," as Hillary Clinton said last month. In contrast, the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al Faisal, said that arming the opposition is "an excellent idea."

It is. The U.S. has an unexcelled capability to train, equip and organize indigenous forces. Employing that capability, along with our NATO allies, to support the Syrian opposition can end the conflict more quickly and help limit violence and extremism in the aftermath.

Mr. Palmer, a member of the board of Freedom House, is a former U.S. ambassador to Hungary.

Mr. Wolfowitz, a visiting scholar at AEI, is a former U.S. deputy secretary of defense and former ambassador to Indonesia.

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