This is one of six essays in the May 2018 report "Addressing Non-State Actors: Multiple Approaches" (see full report). Each essay is the independent work of its authors.
There are justified reasons the United States may decide to provide security assistance to non-state actors, including support for counterterrorism operations, the responsibility to protect innocent civilians, pushback against foreign invasion, as well as other possibilities. For example, when the United States began providing the mujahideen with weapons in the 1980s, it not only helped protect innocent Afghans from callous attacks by Soviet forces, it increased the cost of the Soviet invasion until they ultimately withdrew a decade later. At a relatively low financial cost to the United States, it was able to protect lives and weaken its rival superpower.
However, even if we take the most generous view of U.S. intentions when providing security assistance and weapons to NSAs, several unintended consequences can and have occurred. In Afghanistan,[ii] the United States trained and armed fighters who later went on to join al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, which ultimately led the United States to return in 2001 where it is still fighting in a nearly two-decades long war at the cost of trillions of dollars.[iii]
More recently, the United States has been providing more than $2 billion[iv] in weapons and training to Syrian rebels, with an additional $300 million requested for fiscal year 2019.[v] The rebels’ specific task has been to help the U.S. coalition defeat the Islamic State (ISIS), but while Kurdish militias have seen success on the battlefield against ISIS, numerous reports have documented human rights abuses[vi] by U.S.-trained Syrian rebels[vii] and the diversion of U.S. provided weapons.[viii] This has perpetuated the fighting and fostered new grievances among the victims. Yet, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. U.S.-supported Nicaraguan rebels, commonly referred to as the Contras, were frequently accused of human rights abuses,[ix] and trafficking drugs and weapons.[x] But they weren’t the only ones. U.S.-supported UNITA rebels in Angola[xi] and the mujahideen in Afghanistan have also received credible allegations of human rights abuses.[xii]
Much of this comes down to the unavoidable principle-agent problem associated with the provision of arms to other forces. As the principle, the United States only has so much control over the Syrian rebels (the agent) receiving the equipment and training. The agents have different concerns, objectives, and goals, making it near impossible to guarantee arms will not be diverted, power abused, or objectives carried out.[xiii] Yet, US involvement makes it culpable.
In addition, security assistance to non-state actors is an inherently destabilizing activity. The weapons and training provided grant the recipients an extraordinary capacity for violence. Security assistance can be a powerful tool, but it is only as effective as the recipients’ capacity to receive, contain, and direct these resources toward positive ends. States often struggle to fully implement the institutional frameworks required to prevent the misapplication of assistance; the challenge for non-state actors can be even greater.[xiv]
The problem of capacity is compounded by the fact that defense articles and training have a life span that can far exceed the scope of their intended use.[xv] Arms and ammunition linger in the communities that receive them. While U.S. policy, priorities, and interests turn to other areas, the arms and training remain, potentially creating long-term instability. Arms provided to the Contras in Nicaragua have been used by drug traffickers; UNITA rebels in Angola returned to the “battlefield”;[xvi] and many of the mujahideen turned to international terrorism.
In part, this is why relations with neighboring states can be strained when providing NSAs with security assistance. But it is not the only reason. By injecting defense articles outside the pre-existing state structures, the United States undermines the “monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a given territory.”[xvii] This monopoly provides the foundation for state institutions, and underpins a state’s legitimacy domestically and internationally. Unilaterally arming non-state actors upends domestic and regional security relationships already strained by conflict.
For example, relations with Turkey, a major NATO ally who sees the provision of arms to the Kurds as a direct threat, have been severely damaged by U.S. assistance to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This has led to U.S. allies fighting each other in Syria, detracting from the mission’s original objectives and further destabilizing the region.[xviii] Former-President Obama promised there wouldn’t be mission creep,[xix] but in Syria the United States is providing training and operations support, U.S. equipment to various state and non-state actors involved in the conflict, and has attacked the Syrian regime, Russian mercenaries, and Iranian-supported militias. Now the United States is coming dangerously close to being involved in direct fighting against Turkey. All risking a further conflagration of the region.
Whether U.S. assistance has turned to short-term responses, such as U.S. support for Libyan rebels, or the long-term engagement evidenced by current U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, problems have arisen. In 1984, a Congressional resolution stated that it would be “indefensible to provide the freedom fighters [mujahideen] with only enough aid to fight and die, but not enough to advance their cause of freedom.”[xx] Now, the US is providing the “Vetted Syrian Opposition” with just enough assistance to defeat ISIS and anger nearly every ally and foe alike, but not enough assistance to decisively end the conflict against al-Assad and the Syrian regime. Despite the different policy approaches, security assistance has perpetuated and further complicated the wars, while doing nothing to address the endemic problems at the heart of the conflict.
International attempts to regulate the arming of non-state actors have been restrained by the lack of an international consensus on the definition of a “non-state actor.” The term is broad enough to include a range of groups, including armed rebels, warlords, private security companies, terrorist organizations, and even “semi” recognized states such as Taiwan and Kosovo. In 2001, John Bolton, then U.S. Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, rejected an effort to ban military aid to non-state actors defined as “irresponsible end-users of arms” on the grounds that this would “preclude assistance to an oppressed non-state group defending itself from a genocidal government.”[xxi]
While a definition may not determine whether a group is a responsible end-user, it would give states a better idea of their own responsibility in providing weapons, and the risks associated with doing so. The Canadian delegation to the United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, argued for a blanket ban on arms transfers to non-state actors, and attempted to include language in the preamble that would have emphasized states’ responsibility in providing arms to non-state actors. However, due to U.S. opposition, neither effort made it into the final document.
One solution could be to forgo any UN consensus, and instead push for regional agreements. The ECOWAS Convention of 2006[xxii] and the Kinshasa Convention of 2010 define non-state actors and prohibit the transfer of small arms and light weapons to them. The ECOWAS Convention defines NSAs as “any actor other than State Actors, mercenaries, armed militias, armed rebel groups and private security companies.” By comparison, the Kinshasa Convention defines “non-state armed groups” as any group that “is not part of the formal military establishment of a state, alliance of states or intergovernmental organization and over which the state in which it operates has no control.”[xxiii] While the definitions vary significantly, they both address the risk of arming NSAs, and contribute to a customary definition for the groups themselves. Regional arms control regimes like these could discourage interstate meddling, in that parties would have a vested interest in preventing proliferation in their neighborhood(s) and could provide a unified voice against outside intervention.
Ultimately, U.S. provision of security assistance to non-state actors carries enormous risk and should only be executed as policy after thorough cost-benefit analysis that weighs short-term benefits against the likely unintended long-term consequences. Mitigation strategies must also be considered to address the inevitable consequences if in fact assistance is initiated. Non-state actors’ lack of institutional capacity, the lifespan of materiel provided, and the general inability of the United States to align its objectives with those of its non-state proxies exposes the tension between security assistance’s long and short-term goals. An internal CIA study reportedly notes that covertly arming and training rebels has rarely worked in the past.[xxiv] America’s recent covert and overt support in Syria hasn’t seemed to fair much better. While these policies have the potential to achieve short term objectives, they create lasting and long-term consequences that have too often failed to achieve peace and stability.
Seth Binder is an independent researcher focused on U.S. security assistance and arms sales. Robert Watson is a member of the Forum on the Arms Trade’s Emerging Expert program.
[i] Arms Transfers Database, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, (accessed April 3, 2018), .
[ii] Jason Burke “Frankenstein the CIA Created,” The Guardian, January 17, 1999.
[iii] Cost of War Project, Brown University’s Watson Institute, November 2017.
[iv] Security Assistance Monitor data on U.S. security aid to Syria, (accessed April 1, 2018).
[v] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Department of Defense Budget Fiscal Year 2019 (2018, February) Counter-Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Train and Equip Fund (CTEF).
[vi] “We Had Nowhere Else to Go: Forced Displacements and Demolitions in Northern Syria,” Amnesty International, October 2015.
[vii] “Under Kurdish Rule: Abuses in PYD-Run Enclaves in Syria,” Human Rights Watch, June 19, 2014.
[viii] “US-Allied Syrian Rebel Officer Handed Trucks and Ammunition to al-Qaeda Affiliate,” Associated Press, September 23, 2015.
[ix] Doyle McManus, “Rights Groups Accuse Contras: Atrocities in Nicaragua Against Civilians Charged,” Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1985.
[x] “Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy,” Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Report, December 1988.
[xi] Edward Girardet, “Angolans Describe Human Rights Abuse During Civil War,” The Christian Science Monitor, June 3, 1983.
[xii] Patricia Gossman, “The Forgotten War,” Human Rights Watch, February 1991.
[xiii] Kareem Shaheen, “US-Trained Syrian Rebels Refuse to Fight al-Qaida Group After Kidnappings,” The Guardian, August 6, 2015.
[xiv] An Vranckx, “Containing diversion: arms end-use and post-delivery controls,” GRIP, April 2016.
[xv] Paul Holden, Indefensible: Seven Myths That Sustain the Global Arms Trade, Zed Books, February 2017.
[xvi] “Peace in Angola When Savimbi,” Afrol News, April 11, 2001.
[xvii] Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” 1918.
[xviii] Carlotta Gall, “72 Turkish Jets Bomb US-Backed Kurdish Militias in Syria,” New York Times, January 20, 2018.
[xix] Micah Zenko, “Your Official Mission Creep Timeline of the US War in Syria,” Foreign Policy, October 19, 2015.
[xx] “Afghan Freedom Fighters: United States Support,” 98 Statute 3499, U.S. Congressional Resolution, October 4, 1984.
[xxi] Paul Holtom, “Prohibiting Arms Transfers to Non-State Actors and the Arms Trade Treaty,” United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), 2012.
[xxii] ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons, Their Ammunition and Other Related Materials, June 14, 2006.
[xxiii] Central African Convention for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons, their Ammunition and all Parts and Components that can be used for their Manufacture, Repair and Assembly, Kinshasa, April 30, 2010.
[xxiv] Mark Mazzetti, “C.I.A. Study of Covert Aid Fueled Skepticism About Helping Syrian Rebels,” October 14, 2014, New York Times.