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Promoting Peace, But Fueling War in Syria

March 14, 2013 ·

Saudi Arabia is a dubious choice to team with to promote democracy in Syria.

The international community largely supports the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on Syria: hope for peace, but failing that, throw more money at the conflict.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.At a joint news conference last week in Riyadh, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal stressed the importance of a peaceful, democratic transition in Syria and renewed pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, with both men declaring that the Syrian president has “lost his legitimacy” as a ruler of the Syrian people.

Teaming with Saudi Arabia to denounce Assad’s regime and promote democracy is a rather questionable choice, as John Glaser of Antiwar.com observes:  “You really have to swim through a lot of cognitive dissonance to understand how the secretary of state of the world’s only empire and the foreign minister of the Middle East’s worst dictatorship can stand united on bringing democracy to Syria.” And truly, Faisal’s statement that Saudi Arabia cannot “bring [itself] to remain quiet in front of this carnage” and “morally” has “a duty to protect” these citizens seems overly saccharine for the world’s largest source of funds for Islamist militant groups.

Moreover, while both men stated the “urgent” need for a peaceful transition, neither seems to see a problem with simultaneously funding and arming the opposition in the meantime. Only a week before his conference in Riyadh, Kerry revealed that an additional $60 million of non-lethal aid, such as food and medical supplies, would be provided to the Syrian opposition. And Saudi Arabia (along with its nearby ally Qatar) has been not-so-discreetly funneling arms to the opposition for some six months at least.

In fact, the international community largely seems to support the stance presented by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia: hope for peace, but failing that, throw more money into fueling the conflict.

Britain has already petitioned the EU to lift its embargo on the arms trade to Syria, and recently announced it will be sending armored vehicles and other “non-lethal” equipment to the opposition in addition to providing training for rebel groups. Turkey has also supported this stance, joining Britain in petitioning to have the arms embargo lifted on Syria. Not to mention, it is through Turkey that the arms provided by Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been able to make it across the border.

Joining these countries, the Arab League—after its decision to reinstate Syria’s membership in the League with a representative from the Syrian National Coalition, the main umbrella organization for the opposition—called arming Syrian rebels “logical.” Whereas the Arab League previously advocated a political resolution to the conflict, it overturned this decision and now condones the arming of the Syrian opposition by its member states.

On the other side of the conflict, whereas both Iran and Russia support peaceful talks between the regime and opposition (without the precondition that Assad step down), both countries throughout the conflict have reportedly been supplying Assad with weapons shipments.

Countries such as Canada and Germany seem to be the only remaining voices of reason in the international funding mania. Canada, in response to Kerry’s announcement to pledge further aid to Syria, called such funding “too risky,” adding that “the answer to the crisis in Syria is not more violence.” Germany also chimed in, stating that support should be shown for the opposition in a “responsible” way and that the EU’s decision not to lift its embargo was “wise and right.”

Kerry, for his part, seems undisturbed by the risk arming the rebels presents. When Anne Gearan of The Washington Post asked Kerry whether the arms already being funneled into the country could fall into the wrong hands, Kerry replied that while “there is no guarantee that one weapon or another might not at some point in time fall into the wrong hands … there is a very clear ability now in the Syrian opposition to make certain that what goes to the moderate, legitimate opposition is, in fact, getting to them.”

Kerry’s rather long-winded answer simply confirms that the opposition has no ability to prevent arms from reaching extremists.

And this is no hypothetical. At least some of these arms have already fallen into the hands of hard-line Islamists, but in the midst of this international arming frenzy, few seem to be overly concerned by it—least of all those doing the arming.

Leslie Garvey is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus and Focal Points.


Leslie Garvey
Newman Fellow