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Non-state actorsIs it ever a good idea to arm violent nonstate actors?

By Patricia Sullivan

Published 12 July 2017

In May, President Donald Trump authorized a plan to arm the YPG, a Kurdish militia in Syria. A month later, the YPG and their Arab partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces began the fight to take the Syrian city of Raqqa back from the Islamic State. Is the Pentagon right that the benefits of arming the YPG outweigh the risks? Is it ever a good idea to increase the lethality of violent nonstate actors? My own research suggests that the arms and ammunition supplied to a combatant in wartime can perpetuate a state of insecurity in the region long after the war has officially ended. A recent study concludes that security force assistance can achieve some limited goals, but only if states make aid conditional and intrusively monitor recipients. The reality is the conditions under which the U.S. trains, equips and advises armed opposition groups are seldom conducive to either.

In May, President Donald Trump authorized a plan to arm the YPG, a Kurdish militia in Syria. A month later, the YPG and their Arab partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces began the fight to take the Syrian city of Raqqa back from the Islamic State. While the U.S., Russia and Jordan agreed to a ceasefire in southwest Syria that went into effect Sunday, the intense battle for Raqqa continues in the north of the country.

Turkey, a NATO ally and U.S. partner, is fiercely opposed to providing weapons to the YPG because Turkey considers the fighters to be terrorists. But the Pentagon insists arming the Kurdish fighters is essential to beating IS in Syria.

Is the Pentagon right that the benefits outweigh the risks? Is it ever a good idea to increase the lethality of violent nonstate actors? These are questions I address in my research on the long-term effects of providing such aid.

Security assistance as foreign policy
Arming Kurdish and Arab fighters with heavy machine guns, mortars and anti-tank weapons to support operations against IS is not an entirely new development. U.S. Special Forces have been training and equipping the Syrian Democratic Forces since at least 2015.

This is also just one recent example of U.S. security assistance to partner forces around the world. The United States is turning to this foreign policy tool with increasing frequency, but the U.S. has a long history of arming proxy forces in a wide range of locations around the world.

Most security assistance goes to the regular armed forces of recognized states like Egypt and Israel. But, according to the Security Assistance Monitor, approximately 14 percent of publicly disclosed security assistance, and an unknown amount of covert assistance, currently goes to irregular forces – rebels, mercenaries and other nonstate groups. Over the past two decades, the U.S. Department of Defense, State Department and Central Intelligence Agency have trained, armed and advised nonstate armed groups in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Angola and elsewhere.

Considering the risks
So what are the risks of transferring military capabilities to nonstate armed groups?