x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

No good options as Syria's war hits stalemate

The consequences of not arming the Syrian rebels could be greater than the alternative.

The war in Syria could last "many, many months to multiple years". That was the bleak assessment of David R Shedd, the deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, which is part of the US Department of Defense. At a security conference in the US, he said that the civil war is currently a "stalemate" - but that if left unchecked, the power of the armed Islamist groups would only increase.

The comments by Mr Shedd are part of a growing recognition that there will be no easy end to what is fast becoming the Middle East's most serious conflict. Elsewhere, representatives of Syria's Kurdish minority, who live mainly in the country's northeast, are planning to form a provisional government, on the assumption that the war will not end soon.

Arming the rebels, for which this newspaper has long argued, appeared to be likely last month, when the US agreed to do so - only for Washington to lose its nerve and get bogged down in political debates. The biggest fear, in the US and elsewhere, is that the consequences of arming the rebels could be dire.

That is true. There is no guarantee that, even with sophisticated weaponry, the rebels could turn the tide against an emboldened Assad regime, supplied by Russia and backed by Hizbollah. The West and the Arabs rightly worry that arming the rebels and watching them lose would only embolden Iran, which already meddles in many Arab countries. That might tempt the West into further military operations.

And yet, well into the third year of the Syrian conflict, there are no good options, no certainties. What the West, and especially the United States, needs to weigh are the consequences of not arming the rebels.

And those consequences are worse. Even in Bashar Al Assad's best case scenario, where the regime is once again able to establish control over the country, the level of brutality needed to hold together Syria would be astonishing. Mr Al Assad would then be heavily indebted to Iran, who would likely use Syria as a way of causing trouble to neighbouring Turkey, Jordan and perhaps further afield.

The millions displaced, internally and externally, would probably never return home. Sectarian conflict would increase, in Lebanon and elsewhere. A Balkanished Syria would be unstable and would export that instability.

There is no doubt that the risks of arming the Syrian rebels are severe. But in the short-term, not arming them would mean leaving civilians to the mercy of Assad's guns. In the long-term, it would mean watching as those guns are turned on Syria's neighbours.