This week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the Syria Transition Support Act, authorizing arming and training vetted Syrian rebels. Across the Atlantic, the United Kingdom and France are similarly pressing the European Union to lift the arms embargo for Syria. Donor governments, however, need to ensure this "lethal" aid does not pose more risk than reward for Syrian civilians.
Civilians in Syria are already in the line of fire, killed and maimed by rockets, heavy artillery, mortars, scud missiles, and cluster bombs. Syria is awash with weapons. Introducing more -- whether small arms or sophisticated anti-aircraft platforms -- without robust civilian protection training, accountability for unlawful conduct, and disarmament planning can become lethal for Syrians. Donor nations can, however, lessen the risk by considering the following:
Provide training on civilian protection.
Instructing on the laws of war is important, but training the opposition on practical ways to protect civilians means showing, not just telling, fighters how to avoid civilians using battlefield scenarios and real life vignettes. The U.S. military learned in Afghanistan how detrimental civilian harm can be to a mission and now regularly give these kinds of trainings to their forces. Trainings could be easily adapted for the Syrian armed opposition. In fact, many rebel fighters I spoke to in Syria in April expressed a strong interest in acquiring tactical lessons to avoid harming civilians.
This will be a challenge. Syria's rebel fighters belong to dozens of brigades, each with different leadership and ideologies, and varying knowledge of civilian protection, military tactics, weapons use, and targeting standards. There's a willingness on the part of some Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters to better avoid harming civilians. The ones I talked with said they warn civilians to leave an area before an attack, for example. This is positive, but is an ad hoc practice that's not the formal policy and mindset needed across the force. Donor governments considering increasing lethal aid must also provide the Syrian Military Council (SMC) -- which is trying to coordinate the FSA -- with technical assistance to help strengthen the chain of command, and ensure protection trainings flow from the top commanders to the newest fighter.
According to the proposed Syria Transition Support Act, the U.S. government should encourage brigades to commit to a code of conduct respecting the laws of armed conflict, rule of law, and refrain from sectarian violence. This is positive, but more is needed from the FSA. Before any weapons are provided, rebel groups need to establish clear lines of accountability for unlawful conduct by its fighters. Opposition fighters told me some fighters' weapons have been taken away as a form of discipline in some brigades. But some rebel forces have been involved in looting, ill treatment of detainees, summary executions, and recent mutilation of a corpse. Taking away someone's weapon is woefully inadequate punishment for unlawful conduct. Rebel forces need to understand that their credibility is at stake, as years of impunity prompted Syrians to rise in the first place.
Track and respond to civilian harm.
Zero civilian harm is unrealistic, even with the most advanced precision weaponry or best civilian protection training. Opposition fighters need a practical tool to assess the impact of their operations on the civilian population -- in sum, to track and respond to the civilian harm they may cause. To start, this could be a rudimentary database at a brigade's headquarters containing details of any possible civilian casualties that can be radioed in from the battlefield. Nations offering lethal aid can help create these databases so rebel can begin to understand how their operations are effecting civilians. The information can also be crosschecked with Syrian civil society casualty documentation, in particular to identify recipients in need of assistance during and after the conflict.
Vet end-users and track weapons.
Once a fighter is given an M16, there is no guarantee where it will end up or for what purpose it will be used. Vetting end-users is essential to identify who is receiving weapons, especially as outside groups with different ideologies continue to enter the battlefield. While tracking weapons is almost impossible once they're handed over, donor nations should try. That means assist the SMC in creating a tracking system to at least attempt to monitor weapons. There is evidence this is done in some brigades. Fighters told me that their brigade commander records names of fighters, the type, and serial number of their weapon. It is unclear whether this is replicated in all the brigades, but it might be possible to replicate the practice widely and it's a worthy effort.
Secure stockpiles and plan for future disarmament now.
Libya should be a cautionary tale. There were no proper plans in place to disarm the militias or control the proliferation of weapons to other conflicts. If advanced weapons are provided, donor nations should work concurrently with the political and armed opposition on plans to secure loose weapons, stockpiles, unexploded ordinance, and small arms when the conflict ends. Donors along with the opposition should think about a disarmament program now, complete with incentives, like job training and public works projects, to turn in weapons when the war is over.
Before the U.S. or any other nation supplies more weapons to Syria, they must take some precautions to ensure that this aid does not do more harm to civilians. The Syrian people, who have suffered for so long, deserve that careful consideration.