A recent article from The Atlantic describes the current state of international intervention in Syria, in which Russia and Iran are propping up the Assad regime while the U.S. and Britain contemplate providing support for Syria’s rebel army. Iran has been funneling money and weapons to Assad and has increasingly become the Syrian government’s “lifeline” in its ongoing civil war—something Russia seems to have no problem with. According to a Reuters report, Iran has been using civilian aircraft to fly personnel and weapons into Syria, while also funneling arms through Shi'ite proxy groups in Lebanon and Turkey, like Hezbollah. This weapons trade is in clear violation of international law due to the U.N. sanctions that were put in place to prevent such trade.
Interestingly, Russia is not concerned about Iran’s or Assad’s violations of international law, but is quite concerned about the possibility of the West supporting rebel forces. In fact, this past Wednesday, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Larov, warned the UK that any attempt to send weapons to “non-governmental actors” would be considered a violation of international law. However, at this moment in the conflict the West has not shown many credible signs that it is willing to provide anything but vocal support for the rebels. Without lethal aid from international actors, the rebels are left to buy arms on the black market, steal them from the Army, and craft their own makeshift weapons.
SGC (2011) “Explaining External Support for Insurgent Groups” says that rebels are more likely to gain external support if the government receives external support. Based on this theory, in Syria we should be seeing the West providing material support for the rebel forces, because the Assad regime is receiving weapons and money from Iran and Russia. However we have yet to see such an intervention on the part of the West, possibly because the rebel forces are still very much factionalized. Also if the West does intervene, like it did in Libya, it runs the risk of encouraging future rebel movements in other countries by creating an expectation of intervention—possibly resulting in more mass killings and more conflict.
The West is in a difficult position. If it intervenes, a victory for the rebel forces might yield short-term benefits (i.e. Democracy, ending mass killings) but the long-term consequences (raised expectations of intervention) could outweigh these benefits. If it does not intervene, we could see the perpetuation of the Assad regime, mass killings, repression, and refugees. Timing is key element in intervention, and it seems as if the West might have waited too long. At this point, I believe the West should continue providing non-lethal aid to help those injured or in need, but should not intervene militarily or even provide lethal aid to the rebels.