Russian and Saudi arms fuel Syria’s suffering

As grim news drips in daily from Syria, it has emerged that both rebels and the government are being armed from abroad. Some fear that the conflict is developing into a ‘proxy war.’

When the Syrian uprising began in January 2011, it seemed like a purely domestic affair. Yet, 16 months on and with no end in sight, foreign powers are increasingly active in the conflict.

On Sunday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Russia of supplying the Syrian army with helicopters. Despite Russian denials, many are convinced that they are being used in the government’s brutal attacks on civilian zones.

Yesterday it emerged that opposition forces, too, are receiving arms from abroad. Once hopelessly outgunned, the rebels are now using heavy anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons smuggled from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the increasingly powerful Turkey.

Equipment is not all that foreign powers are providing. Iran has admitted sending fighters from its elite Quds Force to Syria, where they are providing ‘advice’ to the country’s embattled dictator Bashar al- Assad.

Why are all these nations taking sides? Part of the reason is sectarian: the Syrian government is dominated by Muslims from the Shia minority, which also rules Iran. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, on the other hand, are Sunni. The two groups split over 1,300 years ago, and are their rivalry still divides the Middle East.

Now, analysts fear that Syria could become the front line in the two sects’ struggle for regional supremacy. And this conflict could suck in countries beyond the region.

First there is Russia, an old ally of Assad’s. Russia has historic and economic interests in the Middle East, which it believes are being disrupted by recent wars involving the USA. The rising superpower China shares this hostility to Western interventionism, and has sided with Russia.

The West is not yet involved, but the rumbling of support for intervention is growing louder. Western concerns are partly humanitarian; but US experts also fear that a rebel defeat would be a victory for bitter enemies Iran.

Could the revolution descend into a ‘proxy war’ between foreign powers? If so, the consequences may be grim indeed: similar proxy conflicts like the Vietnam War and the Spanish Civil War have been some of the most destructive conflicts of recent times.

For love or money?

On all sides, the intervening powers insist that their motives are pure. Russia claims to support stability and a peaceful resolution, Saudi Arabia condemns massacres committed by Assad. Some say that their actions really do come from personal feelings and beliefs.

Others, however, doubt that states ever intervene in foreign conflicts unless their own interests are at stake. This is no grand battle of ideas, they say; it is a struggle for power driven by selfishness and greed.

You Decide

  1. Are those who sell weapons to killers as guilty as those who use them?
  2. Do the actions of governments ever have genuinely unselfish motives?


  1. Write a discussion between a Russian and an American diplomat, in which each accuses the other of hypocrisy.
  2. Research and write a short essay of roughly two paragraphs on the question: why did the USA go to war in Vietnam?

Some People Say...

“The USA would never be in the Middle East at all if it weren’t for oil.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Could this be the beginning of World War III?
It’s extremely unlikely: one of the reasons that major powers get involved in ‘proxy wars’ is that it provides an alternative to direct fighting. At most it might be a regional war in which powers like Russia, China and the USA back opposing sides. Still, this would be disruptive enough.
For a start, petrol prices would rocket: much of the world’s oil is located in the Middle East. It would also mean huge uncertainty in a crucial and volatile area of the world. What’s more, a proxy war in Syria could signal a return to the sort of serious global tensions that have not existed since the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago. Arms races and struggles for global supremacy could follow – the world would be a far less harmonious and stable place.

Word Watch

Secretary of State
In the USA, the Secretary of State is responsible for foreign affairs. It is often considered to be the second most powerful powerful position in US politics.
A sectarian conflict is one that divides ‘sects’ – that is, groups with different religious or philosophical beliefs.
The two groups split
The Islamic faith divided into Sunnis and Shias immediately after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 661 A.D. At first their only disagreement was who should take over the leadership; however, small but important differences have since emerged in the two sects’ beliefs and practices.
The Vietnam War
The Vietnam War started as a civil war between the American-backed dictatorship in the South and the communists who controlled the North. But it soon became a struggle between the USA, who feared the spread of communism by the ‘domino effect,’ and their Marxist enemies China and Russia. It was probably the bloodiest conflict of the Cold War era.
The Spanish Civil War
In 1936, a group of right-wing generals rose up against the democratic socialist government of Spain, and the country was plunged into civil war. It began as a fragmented internal conflict, but soon foreign powers were sending aid to either side. The right-wing ‘Nationalists’ were backed by fascist Italy, while the ‘Republicans’ became increasingly dependent on the Soviet Union. The Nationalists were ultimately victorious, and ruled for almost fifty years.


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