President Obama and PM Erdogan of Turkey had a chat this week about aiding Syrian resistance through “non-lethal means”. By this they’re talking about providing medical and humanitarian support for those fleeing Syria, as an alternative to dumping truckloads of guns and explosives into the region.
For the Turks, some help is probably welcome. Their border with Syria has become a chaotic zone of fleeing civilians and rebels, some of them badly injured. Around 16,000 Syrian refugees are currently registered in Turkey, representing a fraction of the roughly 130,000 who have fled their homes so far and sought shelter in neighbouring countries. (Such numbers generated by just one civil conflict show how truly piddling our Australian “refugee crisis” actually is.)
And whilst caring for all these poor huddled masses has been somewhat destabilising for the Turks, it’s the traffic going the other way which is also of concern. Anyone who invested in Kalashnikov futures 12 months ago would be making a killing today as the demands for personal firepower rises in Syria. Assault rifles that cost around $800 on the Lebanese black market a couple of years ago are now hitting $2500 a piece, according to some reports. As the rebels gear up and fighting gets more intense, the illegal arms trade through Lebanon and Turkey may prelude an intensifying “weaponisation” of the region.
Turkey will also be worried about what involvement its Kurdish opponents may have in this trade, either as buyers, sellers or profiteers.
The provision of passive aid also side-steps a number of tricky policy pitfalls for the US. If they were handing out guns and “advisors”, the big question would be who gets them? The dubious ex-Colonel who jumped ship and is keen to carve out his own personal fiefdom? The Islamist group who want to cleanse their neighbourhood of Alawites and Christians? Or the well-meaning but anarchic Tweeters and bloggers rushing around shooting iPhone clips?
Likewise if more hardware is tipped in, at what stage will it start to suck the providers of said arms into a situation where they are actively participating in the civil war? It’s a short step from providing the mortar tube to providing a trainer on how to use it to providing an “observer” to go along and see it is used correctly…
Doctors and medical supplies though? That’s a winner. You’re doing something. And it’s a nice caring something. You show that you’re willing to help without exactly jumping into the fray yourself.