THE BLOG
12/14/2017 16:14 EST | Updated 12/15/2017 08:30 EST

Harper Was Right To Refuse To Arm Rebels In Syria

The “moderate rebels” Western and Gulf states said they were funding didn’t exist in any meaningful way for much of the conflict.

The Stephen Harper-led Conservative government was a disaster. Yet one crucial decision was worthy of praise at the time, and has become increasingly so with each passing day: the refusal to arm Syrian rebels.

In May 2013, the European Union lifted a 2011 arms embargo on Syria. Several EU members wanted to be able to send weapons to rebel groups in order to speed up regime change and oust Bashar al-Assad. Since then, France, the United States, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others, have provided arms to the rebels.

Harper broke rank with Canada's allies by refusing to take part in shipping weapons to rebel groups. Then-foreign affairs minister John Baird said, "My strong view is that the only way to end the suffering of the Syrian people is a political solution, that flooding the country and the region with more arms will lead to more violence, more death and more destruction."

Khalil Ashawi / Reuters
Members of al-Qaeda's Nusra Front drive in a convoy touring villages in the southern countryside of Idlib, on Dec. 2, 2014.

A close examination of the following years, and the journey Western-supplied weapons have taken, prove that Baird and the Conservatives were right.

Many of the weapons provided by the West that were intended for "moderate rebels" ended up with ISIS, enabling their mass atrocities and years-long control of parts of Iraq and Syria.

Today, the Conflict Armament Research organization released a report, which found that American weapons intended to go to "moderate rebels" ended up in ISIS control within two months of leaving the factory where they were made. The report found that these weapons, including anti-tank missiles, "significantly augmented the quantity and quality of weapons available to (Islamic State) forces."

Most of the arms being sent to Syrian rebels at the time, from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, were 'going to hard-line Islamic jihadists.'

A 2015 Amnesty International report, meanwhile, found that ISIS ended up with a substantial amount of U.S. manufactured weapons due to "decades of irresponsible arms transfers to Iraq and multiple failures by the U.S.-led occupation administration to manage arms deliveries and stocks securely."

Yet the "moderate rebels" Western and Gulf states said they were attempting to fund didn't exist in any meaningful way for much of the conflict.

A 2012 report from The New York Times, based on interviews with American officials, noted that most of the arms being sent to Syrian rebels at the time, from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, were "going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster."

In 2013, despite this intelligence that illustrated extremist factions had wrestled control of the fight against Assad, the CIA, which had been training the rebels since at least 2012, initiated their own program to to provide arms, with a budget of nearly $1 billion per year.

Alaa Faqir / Reuters
A Free Syrian Army fighter in the Quneitra countryside on Aug. 24, 2017.

The arms were supposed to go to "moderate rebels," but according to Century Foundation fellow Sam Heller, "for the last several years much of America's support has gone to 'Free Syrian Army' (FSA) factions that have functioned as battlefield auxiliaries and weapons farms for larger Islamist and jihadist factions, including Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate."

President Donald Trump ended this program in July.

If Canada had tried to send arms to "moderate rebels," they would have likely ended up in the hands of ISIS, al-Qaida or other extremist groups.

The Conservatives were smart not to try. They were not, however, momentarily granted with some sort of oracle-like powers back in 2013. Instead, they just had a basic grasp of the long history of Western states recklessly funding or training extremists.

For example, many of the anti-Soviet fighters trained and armed by the U.S. in Afghanistan in the 1980's ended up turning their efforts against the West in the future, including in the 9/11 attacks.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the U.S. decision to disband the Iraqi armed forces after Saddam Hussein was toppled, also played a significant role in the emergence of terror groups, including ISIS, in the country.

There was little reason to think this time would be any different. The U.S. and its allies actively decided to run the very high risk of empowering extremists if it meant the end of Assad's control of Syria, and the introduction of a Western-friendly leader, something they had desired for years.

The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency even made this observation itself in a 2012 report declassified in 2015. The author of the report wrote that Western powers supporting the opposition want a "declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria ... in order to isolate the Syrian regime."

Unlike in Afghanistan or Iraq though, the West was not successful this time around. Assad and his allies, including Russia and Iran, have now effectively won the ground war.

Sputnik Photo Agency / Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, on Nov. 20, 2017.

The outcome after six years and counting of bloodshed? Assad likely remains in power, but there are now more than 5.4 million refugees, 6.3 million internally displaced people and 400,000 casualties; a once functioning and prosperous state has been ruined.

Western backed forces played a crucial role in prolonging this conflict. Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies, wrote that, "US regime-change policy in the Middle East was a failure that fueled radicalism, prolonged civil wars, death, & torture." A CIA official, speaking with the Washington Post, offered one way this happened, by estimating that CIA-backed fighters in Syria likely killed over 100,000 people.

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The Conservatives were correct that the influx of arms from the West and their Gulf Allies would extend the conflict. While Canada still called for Assad's downfall, and spent millions trying to make it happen in other ways, the Conservatives deserve credit for holding back from providing troops or arms.

Hopefully current and future Canadian leadership will keep this in mind when the next Western-backed regime change effort is unrolled.

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