Arming Syria’s rebels: Will it work?

Afghan mujahideen, October 1987. By Erwin Lux [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Afghan mujahideen, fighting to expel the Soviet Union, October 1987.
By Erwin Lux [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

After two years of cautious restraint, the Obama administration has reportedly directed the Central Intelligence Agency to begin supplying and distributing small arms and ammunition to elements of the Syrian opposition. What pushed President Obama over the edge?

The answers are trickling in. A key determinant, obviously, was the intelligence community’s “high confidence” assessment that Bashar al-Assad’s regime has repeatedly used chemical weapons (whether proxy arming constitutes a commensurate response is another question). Others point to a growing sense that the United States was losing credibility as the death toll surpassed 90,000 and European and Arab allies girded for greater involvement in the war.

More insight into the National Security Council’s deliberations should come in the days and weeks to come. However, the nature of the debate has changed—from “should the U.S. intervene?” to “will it work?”

Syria, by many definitions, probably does not belong on this blog. Covered daily on the front page of the New York Times and others, the Syrian conflict is not exactly “periphery.” Nonetheless, Notes on the Periphery can make a contribution in at least one way: by extracting lessons from a few “forgotten conflicts” to inform the discussion.

And so this post (perhaps the first in a series?) will cover the “will it work?” question by examining a handful of historical cases: when the United States (and allies) has provided arms in the past, has it worked?

Four cases to consider

Afghanistan (1979-1989)

A la “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the CIA’s covert operations to counter the Soviets in Afghanistan constitute the most well-known case of proxy arming. Of course, the unintended consequences (the rise of al Qaeda and the Taliban) did not bode well for the West, but providing hundreds of millions of dollars of covert aid to the Afghan mujahedeen did achieve a degree of tactical success in the 1980s. (Initiated in large part by National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who ironically now disparages US intervention in Syria.) While anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles consistently frustrated Soviet forces, it is hard to argue that arming tilted the military balance in favor of the rebels—Moscow’s forces remained stronger and far more capable than the mujahedeen throughout the decade-long war. If comparing with Syria, it is important to note that the Soviet Union had an exit option—after ten years of war, they returned home. Assad’s forces (save for an extremely unattractive plan to retreat to Syria’s Alawite-populated west) have no such luxury, and they appear willing to fight until their last breath.

Level of success? Moderate. The mujahedeen did play a significant role in expelling the Soviets, but the war did last, after all, ten years, at the cost of over 1.5 million Afghan lives and untold devastation to the country’s economy and way of life. Is that a success?

Angola (1975-1991)

A principal flashpoint during the Cold War, the Angolan civil war pitted the Soviet- and Cuban-backed MNLA (government) against US- and South African-backed UNITA (rebels). Tracing the effect of foreign-supplied arms is difficult, as they constituted only one element of an external intervention so deep that the conventional Cuban army often met South African defense forces directly in battle. But it is undeniable that providing weapons and training helped sustain UNITA’s struggle. Proxy arming came at a steep price for UNITA’s foreign backers—the Reagan administration provided $15-20 million in covert military aid annually, and allies as disparate as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and South Africa forked over upwards of $150 million in military assistance each year. Yet the escalation was to no avail: despite tactical successes, UNITA was no closer to taking the prize (Luanda, Angola’s capital) in 1991 than it was in 1975. Only after the collapse of the Communist bloc and end of South African apartheid did external support dry up.

Level of success? Low. Even a well-armed and well-disciplined South African force, ostensibly acting on behalf of UNITA, was unable to dislodge the MNLA.

Chad (1980-1994)

While not support for the rebels precisely, the Chadian case offers interesting insights into how proxy arming might work. Facing a far more capable Libyan army (tanks, fighter jets, heavy artillery) and a spattering of insurgent groups in the country’s north, Hissene Habre’s fragile government in Chad leaned heavily on French and American support to turn the tide. Periodic French air campaigns (including “Operation Manta” in 1983, France’s largest since the Algerian War) helped keep the Libyan army behind a territorial “red line” bisecting the country. An American four-year, $70 million assistance package (including Stinger missiles, personnel carriers, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers) improved the Habre government’s military capability (Burr and Collins 1999, 167-71). However, it was not until 1987 that foreign military support produced a windfall for Chadian forces. Taking even their Western backers by surprise, the Chadian army mastered the art of “swiftly executed pincer movements”: the agile forces, driving simple Toyota trucks through the Chadian desert, would quickly surround and attack slow-moving Libyan tanks with precision French-supplied MILAN missiles. With simple but effective anti-tank weapons, Chadian forces defied the conventional wisdom that bigger was better. The unprecedented success not only expelled the Libyan army from Chadian territory, but it allowed Habre’s forces to drive all the way to Colonel Qaddafi’s doorstep—a surprise September 1987 attack destroyed 30 expensive fighter jets and killed hundreds of soldiers at a gargantuan air base in southern Libya (Burr and Collins 1999, 228).

Level of success? High. Although Chad’s civil war lasted nearly two decades, Chadian forces (little more than a large militia) quite effectively used foreign weapons to dispose of Libyan forces.

Nicaragua (1981-1990)

After President Carter tried to work with the newly-installed Sandinista government, the Reagan administration pulled an about face in 1981. With an initial $19 million package, Reagan directed the CIA to fund and organize a new resistance group (the Contras) to combat the Sandinista regime. The Contras, heavily dependent on U.S. support, suffered losses after a Congressional ban in 1985 that placed a total arms embargo on Nicaragua. The illegal Iran-Contra deal notwithstanding, material support for the resistance movement largely dried up. Peace negotiations in 1987 all but brought an end to the armed conflict, with the Contras negotiating from a much weaker position.

Level of success? Low. Upon reflection, some may argue that had the U.S. bolstered lethal aid to the Contras, they might have been more successful—but it is hard to imagine more than a military stalemate would have emerged.


Of course, these examples are little more than snapshots, and certainly not perfect analogies. Yet it would undoubtedly be appropriate for the United States to reflect on past experiences before going through with its Syrian experiment. The most important lesson is that arming is inherently unpredictable. Reagan-era officials expecting a quick resolution to the Angolan and Nicaraguan conflicts were no doubt disappointed with the results. Few in the 1980s foresaw that the United States would return to Afghanistan two decades later to fight the very mujahedeen it had once armed. A comparable effort in Syria, depending on its scope and scale, could fail like Angola, or succeed like Chad.

Either excised to fit into definitive sound bites or suffering from a lack of imagination, proposals to arm the Free Syrian Army have largely left out details about how to so, and what effect this would have. Even if the end result is positive like Chad, it is important to remember that an arming campaign may take years to produce that result. Still severely outgunned by an Iranian- and Russian-backed Assad regime, the opposition is not likely to gain a serious advantage in military capability in the near future. (However, as the surprise July 2012 bombing that killed half of Assad’s inner circle demonstrates, anything could happen.)

What arming could do, however, is infuse new energy into the resistance movement. If interventionists are to be believed, lethal aid could encourage rebels to take risks they previously were unable to swallow. In the Angolan war, UNITA’s military offensives often came on the heels of a surge in foreign assistance. Not only does arming improve a force’s capability, but it also bolsters its motivation.

Just some initial conclusions to consider for now. Expect more to follow!

Further reading:

This entry was posted in Afghanistan, Angola, Central Africa, Central Asia, Chad, Latin America, Middle East and North Africa, Nicaragua, Syria, US policy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Arming Syria’s rebels: Will it work?

  1. Pingback: Defining “success” in proxy arming: the Afghanistan case | Notes on the Periphery

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s