As the Syrian civil war rages on with no end in sight, many advocates of U.S. intervention are claiming that an infusion of Western arms to carefully vetted rebel factions will help bring about a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Though hardly the first time that tools of war have been recast as instruments of peace, this curious proposition has gained unprecedented currency across the ideological spectrum, from liberal internationalists to conservative hawks.
Unfortunately, the magic bullets theory doesn't hold much water. Arming the rebels might bring the war to a close sooner by helping "good" guys kill "bad" guys more efficiently, but there's no compelling reason to believe it will entice them to stop fighting.
The superficial logic of arms-for-peace is elegant, to be sure, rooted in the classic diplomatic axiom that a political settlement to an armed conflict is possible only when, for all relevant players, the expected utility of a negotiated peace, E[u(p)], is greater than the expected utility of continued war, E[u(w)]. There are several arguments as to how a calibrated infusion of arms into Syria will help produce this rare condition (presumably absent from the large majority of civil wars in the modern era that ended in the military defeat of one side or the other). Let's take them one at a time.
Decreasing E[u(w)] for pr-regime actors
The most common arms-for-peace argument, frequently invoked by Obama administration officials, is that arming the rebels will begin shifting the balance of power away from pro-government forces and signal Western resolve to tip it further, thereby diminishing E[u(w)] for the regime, its domestic supporters, and/or its Russian and Iranian backers. "Altering the balance of power on the ground … is the only way a politically negotiated transition can become possible," writes Dennis Ross. Negotiations "will amount to little given the current power asymmetry," concurs Elizabeth O'Bagy.
However, the balance of power is not the only thing influencing E[u(w)] in the Syrian arena. For President Bashar Assad and upper echelon regime elites, Iranian patronage is increasingly a central determinant of E[u(w)], and they have very good reason to believe that Iran will continue financing and resupplying them for the foreseeable future. Even if Damascus falls, they can carry on the fight for quite some time in the coastal heights of northwestern Syria where non-Sunnis constitute a majority of the population, then go into comfortable exile in Tehran if and when continued resistance becomes untenable. Whatever their battlefield setbacks, they will be loathe to abandon Iranian protection at a time of great danger and uncertainty.
For ordinary Syrians who support and fight for the regime (mostly Alawites and other non-Sunni minorities), on the other hand, E[u(w)] is far more dependent on the anticipated outcome and costs of the conflict. However, while American sponsorship of the rebellion may sap their confidence in military victory, the perception that Washington is pulling the strings of the rebels could also raise E[u(w)] for regime supporters if they expect image-conscious American policymakers to balk at green-lighting the horrific violence sure to accompany a successful rebel push on Damascus, or if they assume that Western involvement will mitigate the political consequences of losing the war. In any case, because their E[u(p)] is very low (more on this below) and they have little independent capacity to mobilize, a diminished E[u(w)] is more likely to produce individual defection, desertion, or passivity than concerted bottom-up pressure on their leaders to change course. Lower morale among regime supporters may make it easier to overpower Assad's forces, but this alone won't open a path to peace.
A stronger case can be made that tilting the military balance will diminish E[u(w)] for Russia. However, this may not precipitate a major policy change, as Moscow is bearing few of the war's costs – its economic support for the regime is minimal, while its arms sales would appear to yield a net profit. The reputational expenses of arming murderers loathed throughout the Sunni Islamic world may eventually lead Russia to cut off arms sales to Assad, but Moscow will incur these costs irrespective of whether Washington aids the rebels. In any case, there is little reason to believe that a more enlightened Russian policy will decisively change expected utility calculations for the regime as long as Iran is backing it to the hilt.
Iran, on the other hand, is directly subsidizing pro-regime forces financially (to the tune of 12.6 billion dollars so far, according to one recent estimate) and mobilizing Iraqi and Lebanese Shiites to fight alongside them. A military escalation precipitated by an influx of Western arms will undoubtedly strain its sanctions-riddled economy. But this doesn't mean, as some interventionists maintain, that it "will most likely back down when faced with the prospect of confrontation with the United States."
There are many intervening variables that make it difficult to predict E[u(w)] for the Islamic Republic. The intense religiosity of Iranian leaders surely inflates their confidence in ultimate victory. Overt U.S. involvement in the rebel war effort may shift the military balance, but it could also serve to legitimize Iran's Syria policy as a fight against the Great Satan (or otherwise make abandoning it more politically unpalatable). Though it's difficult to imagine how continued conflict could turn out well for the Iranian regime in the long run, some commentators have suggested that it can use even a losing war in Syria to expand its influence among Shiites in the region. In any case, if the past is any guide, a major change in Tehran's disposition is likely to drag far behind the changing realities that drive it. Whatever else it might achieve, an arms-for-peace strategy with this aim in mind won't produce peace anytime soon.
Increasing E[u(p)] for pro-recime actors
Of course, even a substantial reduction in E[u(w)] for one or more of the above won't matter if their E[u(p)] is demonstrably lower. For regime elites, E[u(p)] is abysmally low. Rebels have constantly reiterated that Assad and his inner circle must step down and relinquish control of the military-security apparatus at the start of any negotiated political transition. They are unwilling even to negotiate with anyone who has "blood on their hands" let alone offer them a place in the post-war order. Assad and his ilk are being asked to accept a conditional surrender, not a power-sharing arrangement of the kind that brought an end to the 1975-1990 civil war in Lebanon.
Iran's E[u(p)] is also very low. The predominantly Sunni rebels' overt sectarian discourse and frequent denunciations of the Shiite theocratic republic – even before the large influx of foreign Shiite fighters in the first half of this year – leave little doubt that Iran will lose out in any peace settlement that produces a stable post-war majoritarian government. Significantly, both the rebels and Western governments have thus far refused to allow Iranian representatives to attend prospective peace talks in Geneva. While Russia can hope to win some American-guaranteed concessions in post-war Syria in exchange for leaning on Assad (like keeping its naval base at Tartus), Iran will be left squarely in the cold.
Ordinary regime supporters are more amenable to a negotiated settlement than their leaders and foreign benefactors, but they also have deep reservations about majoritarian rule. Though Alawites have dominated Syria's Baathist state for over four decades, they and other sectarian minorities previously endured centuries of socio-political exclusion and impoverishment at the hands of Sunni rulers. Given the pronounced Islamist character of the rebellion, many understandably fear that they will be made to pay for the Assad regime's crimes. Insofar as regime supporters have the capacity to project influence over their leaders, it will not be to support a transition process that leaves them at the mercy of their adversaries.