The arms race to the bottom

With the UN inspectors in Syria and the US engaging with Iran, James Brady argues that the biggest threat is not the countries, but the proliferation of arms to militias and rebel groupsSyria’s prospects are bleak. The absence of any prospect of resolution to its civil war leaves it lost to the ravages of insurgency. Instability has become the norm for the region.The Arab Spring has unearthed post-colonial dissatisfaction with former political establishments as well as the power struggle for domination in the area between Israel and Iran. Chemical weapons in Syria and Iran’s nuclear programme are the often cited as the cause of instability in the region, but the true source may lie elsewhere.After the chemical attacks on civilians in Syria around Damascus, the international community responded by means of UN inspections. There was cynicism about these actions; that intervention at this stage for the Syrian people was too little, too late.Public comment on the issue consisted of exasperation and anger that Al-Assad could spend two years killing his own people, but it took a chemical weapons attack, the precursor to genocide, before the world reacted.The situation regarding Iran and its nuclear weapons programme has followed a different route. Under the guise of the provision of energy, nuclear technology and expertise has spread into the country. UN trade embargoes have stymied economic growth and development in Iran.Assassinations, tactical airstrikes and the use of the Stuxnet virus by two key players, the US and Israel, have only managed to delay Iran’s plans. Despite this, the real source of instability in the region will continue to come from less publicised and feared sources.Nuclear weapons require relatively large amounts of finance, technology and expertise to become a credible threat. Iran may acquire some of the technology, but lacks the experienced armed forces to sustain a war. The US and Israel, on the other hand, have the political willpower and physical capability of maintaining an armed campaign for a far greater period.Throughout the conflict in Syria and the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi, there has been an increasingly large amount of weaponry falling into the hands of armed militias and rebel groups. These armed uprisings require not just political and social pressure, but physical pressure too. The ability to exercise this has its roots in colonialism.Colonialism largely took place through the use of force. Colonial nations such as Belgium, Italy and France had private companies supply their armies with weapons. In the 1960’s, the deconstruction of colonial empires took place under the auspices of the UN. Since then, weapon manufacturers in these countries have maintained their relationship with post-colonial leaders.The unstable political nature of these countries, such as Libya, Mali and Sudan, has allowed for varying degrees of government breakdown, with factions and weapons going separate directions from government rule. The Cold War allowed Russia and America to engage in war by proxy, with each side arming opposing governments, rebels and various radical groups which the arming nation will call enemy, friend and terrorist as it suits.China, North Korea and Iran are equally interested in extending influence as the power balance shifts east, and have therefore also taken to arming rebel groups in unstable regions.After the outbreak of civil war, rebels obtained sophisticated weaponry from various sources, such as captured supplies and imports from foreign supporters. As members of the Syrian army defected, they took with them their military knowledge and skill. Evidence has emerged of rebels using surface-to-air missiles as well as various anti-tank missiles.There is a real need for international involvement in bringing about peace. There are now more people in the world that can wage an armed war, with no flag, uniform or nation tying them down. These are the people the world should fear. The world should fear the men who are willing to go to war for nothing more than an ideology.Disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons is of little consequence in global politics in comparison to the effect that conventional weapons could have. From a historical perspective, the most effective terrorist campaigns were sustained by assault rifles and plastic explosive. One needn’t look further than Northern Ireland and the Provisional IRA for confirmation.International players now face a terrible prospect. Engage with Assad and give legitimacy to a government who kills its own citizens or the unpalatable idea of allying with rebels linked to Al-Qaeda and the Al-Nusra Front. These “ordinary” weapons were the tools for the Rwandan genocide or the decade-long war in Afghanistan and are capable of ruining countries.As finance and technology flows into Syria to both sides of the conflict, disarmament of chemical weapons is a token gesture. Iran will continue to support any regime that feels threatened by US influence. Nuclear and chemical weapons are not affecting the power balance as much as the sustained influence that explosives and guns are having.The death toll from the chemical weapons attack is considered to have been in the hundreds. The total from conventional weapons in the civil war is in the hundreds of thousands.However, there are some benefits to be seen from the Syrian government’s acceptance of the UN Security Council’s demands regarding its chemical weapons. The conditions include inspections, decommissioning of chemical weapon manufacturing-facilities, delivery systems and the destruction of any existing stockpiles.While this provides some hope of limiting Assad’s capabilities, his conventional forces retain their strength and will continue to fight. As long as Assad continues to receive outside support, the violence will go on.Bringing about peace in Syria and in the wider region is in the world’s interest. Disarming the conventional weapons of Syrian rebels and pro-Assad forces will allow refugees to return home and for the reconstruction of national infrastructure to occur.The atrocities carried out with chemical weapons highlight the desperate and sordid nature of war. International focus should be placed on the real origins of instability; the guns and explosives in the hands of the politically disaffected, angry man.