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 US 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.