Arming the Armed Opposition in Syria - the realities and the risks
Apologists for the Syrian government’s crimes against humanity are experiencing a rare moment of vindication at the moment. Or so they are leading themselves to believe. The reason? Well articles about alleged Saudi/Qatari arming of armed opposition groups in Syria with the apparent cooperation or at least knowledge of the CIA are in the mainstream media. “At last” they gleefully pronounce, now finally the mainstream media are catching up with what they and the Syrian government have been saying since the beginning of the uprising early last year.
Two articles in particular have generated most comment, one in the New York Times and the other in the Guardian. Both offer an interesting insight into what many in some parts of the Syrian opposition view as a vital operation to help resist oppression and defend their villages and neighbourhoods from a government brutalising, terrorising and punishing civilians who have decided they want an end to the current regime. Indeed self defence is often cited as the reason many Syrians took up arms or many soldiers defected after seeing peaceful protest after peaceful protest fired upon by Syrian government security forces.
The NYT article says “A small number of CIA officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive arms to fight the Syrian government, according to American officials and Arab intelligence officers.”
It goes on to say the CIA are particularly (and unsurprisingly) interested in ensuring weapons are kept “out of the hands of fighters allied with Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups”.
This is a genuine concern and not something to be dismissed. It is to be expected some governments are taking practical actions.
The Guardian article states “Saudi officials are preparing to pay the salaries of the Free Syria Army as a means of encouraging mass defections from the military” and goes on to say “Turkey has also allowed the establishment of a command centre in Istanbul which is co-ordinating supply lines in consultation with FSA leaders inside Syria.”
As for Amnesty, we have been calling on the UN Security Council to request that any country considering supplying arms to the armed opposition should have in place the necessary mechanisms to ensure the material supplied is not used to commit human rights abuses and/or war crimes.
Such a mechanism should include a rigorous monitoring process, which would enable such arms transfers to be halted should evidence emerge that they are being used to carry out human rights abuses, or are being transferred or diverted to third parties. The mechanism should also include a system for limiting arms to only those weapons, munitions and related equipment which are not inherently indiscriminate (e.g. no use of anti-personnel land mines for instance), and importantly, a system for conveying to recipients practical knowledge and awareness of standards to respect international human rights and humanitarian law. I will come on to whether this is happening later.
Before that there is another reality which must be factored in and that is in the “new Syria”, when it does come around, an army, police force, security and intelligence services will still be needed. This inevitably generates questions such as is it really responsible to say to the Syrian opposition “OK – get on with it” when it is quite clear the knowledge to set up an effective security sector which respects & protects human rights is not there yet and is unlikely to be without advice and training from external parties who know about good practice in security sector reform?
Indeed the more proactive in the international community would suggest this demands active intervention sooner rather than later to ensure when a transition does occur, the security sector is on the way to being professionalised with an effective command structure which is responsible and accountable.
We have seen the problems in Libya where armed militias continue to act above and beyond “the law” with relative impunity – we have said that the same armed militias that fought against Mu'ammar al-Gaddafi's repressive regime now pose the greatest threat to human rights in Libya. Those mistakes should not and must not be repeated in Syria.
In fact the Guardian say diplomatic sources have told them “two US intelligence officers were in Syria's third city of Homs between December and early February, trying to establish command and control within rebel ranks.”
Given that poor command & control would be a contributory factor to an increased risk of human rights abuses by the armed opposition, some could say this is not an unwise thing to do. However up to now it is not clear whether countries are actually assisting with training and documentation for the armed opposition which would increase their understanding of the laws of war and human rights standards in general. This is not about mere academic lessons – this is about preventing abuses and saving lives.
This is a major issue as we at Amnesty have our own concerns about abuses by armed opposition groups in Syria. The scale of these abuses are in no way comparable to the Syrian authorities that is for sure but as our most recent report notes, the armed opposition have committed some human rights abuses.
We are looking into reports of killing and torture or other ill-treatment of captured soldiers and militia members; and abductions and killings of civilians accused of being "collaborators" with government forces.
We will always condemn without reservation such abuses and call on the leadership of all armed opposition groups in Syria to publicly state that such acts are prohibited and to do all within their power to ensure that opposition forces put an immediate end to such abuses. Furthermore those with influence and those in contact with these groups must do the same, whether it is the Saudis, the Qataris, Turkey or indeed the US.
Some may choose to condemn such “outside interference” in the “internal affairs of Syria” and others may choose to recognise countries are already involved and insist on proper safeguards so human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war are prevented. It is a matter of which approach will protect civilians more.
And it is civilian protection which must be paramount. The Syrians who rose up well over a year ago to peacefully demand an end to poverty, corruption and repression would be betrayed if “what comes next” is another regime which fails to respect and protect human rights. This is a point that has not been lost of most Syrian activists – whether in support of arming the armed opposition of not.
The education, training and organisation of opposition groups for a better Syria could in theory and practice start before transition and those states engaged with the armed opposition have this responsibility but as yet it is not clear if they are fulfilling it.
For the sake of all those who have already lost their lives in this uprising, we must insist that those involved in the supplying of arms to the armed opposition should have in place the necessary mechanisms and safeguards to ensure the material supplied is not used to add to the already horrendous level of human rights abuses and war crimes committed during the course of this uprising.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.