Is arming opposition groups really the answer?


By Claudia Hofmann

Most agree that the West has the moral obligation to fight the Islamic State (IS) to end the severe atrocities and gross human rights violations IS is committing every day. Many agree that to do so a military intervention against IS is necessary. The decision to use airstrikes against IS in Iraq was a fairly uncontroversial one; the decision to train and arm Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria a little less so. World leaders know full well of the dangers of arming more or less organized opposition groups, which we may not always be able to vet appropriately in the short timeframe available in an exploding situation.

We have seen the consequences of such policy in recent conflicts in the Middle East in particular. For instance, in Syria, the power vacuum left behind by the exile opposition and the protracted nature of the struggle has produced a large number of resistance groups in the country that operate under no effective leadership. Some of these groups are armed, others remain as a civilian opposition to the Assad regime. Today, the armed opposition groups, nominally under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), pose a legitimate challenge to the civilian opposition under the leadership of the Syrian National Council (SNC). The dependency of the population on the armed groups to provide security and the uncertain and changing motivations of these groups undermine the efforts of the SNC to establish itself as a viable civilian leader in the country. Similarly, Libya after Gaddafi struggles with a large number of armed groups who control parts of the country as well as the resources in those parts, and challenge the new government’s legitimacy with their varying agendas and allegiances.

The West’s policy to supply training and arms to foreign opposition groups in order to support their own fight for freedom and influence in their country but also to protect the West’s interests in these regions regularly leads to long-term difficulties, precarious security situations, and further threats. Four aspects stick out in particular and are relevant to the current support of Kurdish groups in the fight against IS:

  1. The notion that an improvised group of Kurdish fighters, trained and armed in a hurry, can effectively diminish or destroy IS is questionable. In theory, the idea that the West is helping Kurds to take responsibility for themselves and develop the capacities to defend their own land is laudable. Instead of forcefully intervening in a situation that is not a direct threat to the West, we support the population to fight for itself. However, information on who exactly the West is training and arming, which capabilities they have, and where their allegiances lie are scarce. Accordingly, it remains not entirely certain how reliable the newly armed groups are.
  2. Similarly, we are putting our stock in a rented army that has no immediate allegiance to the medium- and long-term goals and interests the West has in the region. While the Kurds and the West currently appear to have the same priority of defeating IS, their long-term motivation and intentions for the region are potentially not aligned with the West’s interests. The consequences of arming groups with divergent motivations may particularly become clear in the medium-term, when IS is no longer a prioritized threat but Kurdish groups remain heavily armed and able to exert power and commit violent acts. An example of how this could go wrong is the West’s support of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Divergent motivations between the Northern Alliance and the West soon led to a disenchantment with the Northern Alliance, who by then still were heavily armed and suddenly presented an opponent with which had to be reckoned.
  3. The West’s use of military power vastly overshadows its engagement on the political, social, and developmental side. Because of it the West runs the danger of becoming a one trick pony, with no other tools in its coffers than the hammer. The obvious disadvantage here is that we really only have one response to any given situation. The second, perhaps not so obvious disadvantage is that the West is running the risk of over-stretching itself – a phenomenon that especially the US is currently experiencing very much so.
  4. Finally, it strikes me that the main reason for the West to use military support as the end all be all answer to recent political crises is that we have no clear understanding of what we are supposed to be doing in situations of conflict. And of course, these kinds of situations are not easy ones, they involve myriad domestic and international considerations, and usually decisions have to be made in a very short timeframe. And more often than not humanitarian and political pressures take over the decision-making process while strategy and tactics are still cooking in the kitchen. Nevertheless, blind action and relying on the one same tool that has created much of the problems we are dealing with currently appears insufficient, reactive, and lacking a larger strategy.

If we look at the countries of the Middle East today we see a number of political conflicts that have escalated into violence. We also see that the arms used in the conflicts have at some point been delivered by external supporters in the West. But after the West lost interest in the immediate issues in the countries, the population on the ground has remained militarized. The probability of renewed armed conflict if arms are already available simply increases the tinderbox that has developed and destabilizes a volatile region even further. The West should consider viable alternatives broader than military intervention alone for the next crisis and develop a proactive strategy that protects its interests, while also protecting societies from the prevalence and horror of arms and violence.

D14_439_010Dr Claudia Hofmann is the Director of the Master in International Service (MIS) program at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC, and an Associate Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House. Her research addresses the role of non-state actors in world politics, with a recent emphasis on the interplay between drugs, organized criminal groups, and national security. Dr Hofmann has a rich background in academic teaching and policy-oriented in-depth research. Her work has resulted in a number of peer-reviewed academic publications, international policy papers, presentations, and policy consultations.

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