Report: Arming Syrian Rebels May Worsen Situation

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Robert Siegel speaks with Robert Malley, a Program Director at the International Crisis Group, about a new report that takes an in-depth look at the Syrian crisis, the Bashar Assad regime and what can happen next.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A new report from the International Crisis Group says that arming the Syrian opposition could plunge Syria ever deeper into a bloody civil war. The ICG is a non-governmental organization. It's headquartered in Brussels. And its report says this: Weaponry could transit through Lebanon, thereby virtually guaranteeing that Syria's civil strife would spill over into its fragile neighbor, as well.

Arming the Syrian opposition, bombing the Syrian military, forging corridors to besieged Syria cities are all policy options that the International Crisis Group rejects, in favor of a new international plan.

Former U.S. Official Robert Malley is now the Middle East and North Africa Program director for the group and he joins us.

Hi.

DR. ROBERT MALLEY: Hi.

SIEGEL: And first, the plan you support has three aims, why don't you tell us what they are

MALLEY: Well, aim number one is to ensure an early transfer of power away from the Assad regime, but one that preserves the integrity of key institutions so that you don't have the kind of chaos that we saw in Iraq. Point number two would be a gradual but absolute thorough reform of the security services, which have been involved in some of the worst brutalities.

And finally, because of the polarization in Syria, because of the fears of Alawite minority in particular, a process of transitional justice that could reassure those Syrians who dislike very much what they see today, but have as equal fear of what tomorrow might bring.

SIEGEL: Now, one could say that none of that is inconsistent with in the short-term arming the Syrian opposition, and putting more pressure on the Syrian regime to agree to this sort of transition. Why not? What's the problem with arming them?

MALLEY: Well, the problem with arming them is not so much whether it ultimately you could get to diplomatic solutions. What you're doing to the fabric of Syrian society between now and then, you know, you're going to have a militarization of the opposition - it's already begun. Logical but ominous as a development for the future of Syrian society, particularly if you're looking not just at toppling the regime but building something better afterwards.

And the more you militarize the opposition, the harder it's going to be to get to some of these objectives: reconciliation, elections, restoration of some sense of nationhood and citizenship.

SIEGEL: So that would be the case against arming the opposition. I guess, likewise airstrikes against the Syrian army.

MALLEY: You know, sooner or later we may well come to that, partly because diplomacy might fail. It's not going to happen tomorrow. Even if you wanted to arm the opposition, it's going to take a long time for the opposition to get anywhere close to where the regime is. And the regime is going to see this as an absolute license to go all out - and not just the regime but its allies, Iran and Hezbollah.

So I think you're going to see an escalation of violence, and the opposition being really outmaneuvered and outgunned during that period. So it's going to take time. Let's give a chance of something that not only has a possibility of changing the regime, but of doing it in a way that causes least damage to Syria and Syria's future.

SIEGEL: Why are ideas like establishing no-kill zones or humanitarian corridors, you dismiss those in the report as half-baked ideas? What's wrong with the idea of trying to forge a corridor to some besieged Syrian city?

MALLEY: Well, almost all of these ideas, they're really going to make a difference until having troops on the ground. There's no way the Syrian regime is going to acquiesce, so it's going to have to be done forcefully. Syria has always been a world-class exporter of instability. It's on the verge of becoming a world-class importer of instability and that's a very frightful picture.

Look at who is on the borders of Syria. All of their neighbors are countries that both of instability within them, but it could also bring them into Syria.

SIEGEL: You acknowledge that the chances for Kofi Annan's mission in achieving this kind of international plan are pretty slim.

MALLEY: Right.

SIEGEL: I had the feeling that, you know, as you were writing your report you're probably chasing events just to get the record out since the situation seems to be worsening. I would assume all of the bad options that you discussed are all possibly going to be in play in the coming months in Syria.

MALLEY: Yeah, all the bad options are likely to be real options very soon. Arming the opposition is happening as we speak. It's probably not happening at the rate that people are talking about, which is actually doubly harmful because on the one hand you raise the specter of arming the opposition, which encourages the regime to hit harder. And...

SIEGEL: Well, not making them strong enough to prevail. Yes. Yeah.

MALLEY: Let's just face all of these issues. I think it's worth talking about them, these other options. They're all bad options. They may be the only options on the table within a few weeks or months. But the fact is all of them are going to entail some very, very risky situations for the Syrians themselves and for their neighbors. They may well be the inevitable path towards which were having. But at this point, we have a window, let's treat it seriously and as wisely as we can.

SIEGEL: Rob Malley, thanks a lot for talking with us.

MALLEY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Robert Malley was special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs. He's now at the International Crisis Group.

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