Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Big Arms Story: Is Syria flooded with advanced weapons?

Recently there has been much stir in the media about arms deliveries from Croatia to the Syrian rebels, apparently sponsored by the US and Saudi Arabia.  What follows attempts to put these deliveries into perspective.  It seems that their significance has been magnified beyond what the evidence will support.  Part of this is probably the normal excitement surrounding a discovery.  Part of it may be something worse, an attempt to scare Western powers from supplying the Syrian resistance.  Neither the quality nor the quantity of weapons delivered justifies any such reaction.


Some reports speak of 'advanced weapons' or make such a big deal of the story that they might as well be saying that.  Well the weapons are not particularly 'advanced'.  To the extent that they're reasonably current, it's not clear that matters much.

The two weapons systems most often cited are the M79 Osa anti-tank rocket system and the M60 recoilless rifle.  No one has claimed that the Osa is advanced.  Some say it can't penetrate the armor of modern tanks.  Perhaps some rounds developed for the system can do this, but none of the reports has claimed that such rounds were spotted or even that they exist.  As for the M60, it is about on a par with many other recoilless rifles, which don't seem to have 'advanced' very much since the 1950s.  (Here the caveat about modern rounds also applies.)  As for proliferation, in Syria and many other places there is no shortage of other models such as the SPG-9, often sighted in the hands of pirates and terrorists.

The other weapon most often mentioned is the RPG-22, another anti-tank rocket system.  This again is hardly spectacular, nor as advanced as other anti-tank systems frequently encountered such as the Kornet.

All these systems work pretty well in Syria because Syrian armor is on the whole not that advanced.  This means there is little incentive even to obtain the latest and greatest anti-tank systems - they wouldn't be worth the money.  That's another reason to tone down the proliferation hysteria.

What's remarkable here is that none of the reports indicate the arms shipments included any weapons that might indeed be 'game-changers', nor any that preoccupy the West.  These weapons fall into two categories, heavy artillery and advanced MANPADS, in sufficient quantity of course.  The MANPADS are what the West most fears getting into 'the wrong hands', and there's no chance that the CIA or the Saudis would underwrite their delivery.  So there isn't even a prospect that US/Saudi shipments from Croatia or anywhere else would include such material.


Given that the quality of the weapons obtained is no 'game-changer',  intelligent fear-mongering will have to depend on the quantity of arms reaching rebel hands.  Much is made of the scale of the deliveries.  Rather less is made of the fact that they were discovered through Syrian government videos in which - according to one of the trackers -  "large quantities" of captured arms are displayed.

Here there seems to be a certain unwillingness to add 2 + 2.  If 'large quantities' were captured in one seizure - there may have been others - doesn't that raise some question of how much reached or was retained by the rebels?  Yet not one report has asked this.  In addition not one report has ventured any estimate at what proportion of the rebels' requirements - either at current or at 'game-changing' levels - the deliveries would represent.  Probably that's because no one has the slightest idea.  The conflict is widespread, utterly decentralized, and diversified; it's hard to see how one would even go about arriving at such an estimate.  What's pretty clear is that the rebels are having trouble both advancing and holding ground, and no explanation seems much more plausible than inadequate ammunition supplies.

In other words, there really is no reason to suppose that the arms-deliveries from Croatia amount to either a 'flood' or a 'game-changer'.  Indeed given uncertainties about quantity, it's hard to assess their significance for the conflict.  It's easier to judge their implications for proliferation - little to none.  In fact the West's panic about arms getting into the hands of terrorists is a little odd given that the three major terrorist attacks in the West (not to mention almost all minor ones) involved no weapons at all.  Think of 9-11, the London July 7th bombings, and the Madrid attacks

Should the arms have been delivered?  Should they have been tracked?  Here are a few things to consider.

Legality:  Contrary to numerous suggestions, the deliveries violated no embargo or law.  Readers interested in the details will find that the dark talk about  it being 'illegal' deliver to 'non-state parties' is flat-out nonsense.

Given the legality of the shipments, reference to them as 'arms trafficking', which strongly suggests illegality, is a smear.  These are the same people who refer to the rebels 'looting' rather than simply capturing Syrian army supplies.  It's hard to imagine them applying the same term to the arms captures of nice white armies.

Worsening:  Very Serious People sometimes declare, with an air of regretful but great sagacity, that supplying arms to the rebels will simply 'prolong' the fighting.  How so?  The fighting can be prolonged only in three ways:  stalemate, rebel victory, or régime victory.  Supplying arms can hardly do anything but increase the likelihood of rebel victory.  Why would that prolong the fighting?  Tipping the balance in favor of a party that keeps gaining ground hardly suggests a more drawn-out struggle.  On the contrary it seems that not supplying the rebels is far more likely to prolong the war.  Since the rebels are now quite strong and fighting for their lives, not supplying arms could well mean a prolonged stalemate or a prolonged régime victory.

Moreover a régime victory is far more likely to prolong the slaughter, because it would certainly be followed by years of murderous, sadistic repression.  As for the rebels, they haven't shown much inclination to massacres.  Even if that changed, the likelihood of slaughter following a rebel victory is much less.  A rebel victory would end the paralysis at the UN, NATO and EU.  It would also leave Syria's defences in disarray.  In the changed circumstances, several powers would be ready and willing to intervene.  So no matter what the future, it's far likelier that not supplying arms will make things worse than that supplying them will do so.

Journalistic ethics:  The exaggeration about arms supplies to the rebels fits nicely with the pretense that tracking arms shipments is a matter of journalistic ethics.  It has been said that, with so much good stuff 'flooding' in and more to come, tracking won't do any harm.  There is no evidence to support this defense and, if we're going to be ethical, maybe it would be a good idea to err on the side of caution when it comes to depriving Syrians of the means to self-defense.

There is also reference to impartiality and the right to know.  Would these journalists appeal to the same ideals and expose, say, British agents in Afghanistan, or American intelligence sources in Yemen?  Again it is hard to resist the sense that wartime censorship is the province of white people.  When Arabs appeal to it, it's apparently yet another sign they just don't get human rights.

Partiality:  Perhaps these journalists, confusing journalistic impartiality with political impartiality,  think they ought to remain neutral and even-handed, oblivious to whether this harms resistance to Assad.  But as their attitudes to censorship show, they don't actually believe that politics shouldn't influence what you do or don't report.  Their show of journalistic impartiality really shows something else:  that they don't care whether or how much their reporting helps Assad.  This suggests that they are not competent to make moral judgements at all.  No matter what they fear if Assad falls, it's just fear.  If he stays, catastrophic slaughter is certain.  This certainty, for anyone who claims to have a conscience, should outweigh the mere possibilities used to weaken support for the rebels.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Illegal? Arms-trafficking and the Syrian resistance

One justification offered for exposing arms shipments to the Syrian resistance is that this 'arms trafficking' is illegal.  This makes for such a bad argument that it raises serious questions about the good faith of those who propagate it.   Among those is Russian foreign minister Lavrov, and in his case the question of good faith doesn't even arise, but what of the others? What of the enthusiastic arms trackers and anti-proliferation obsessives?

The very idea that 'illegal' is sufficient reason for doing or not doing anything is, frankly, infantile.   Laws can be good or bad, justified or unjustified.  Helping slaves escape in the US, circa 1850, was illegal.  Mixed marriages were illegal in  apartheid South Africa.

But suppose the arms trackers really mean you shouldn't break a good law - which begs the question of whether a law barring arms to the FSA would count as good.  No matter.  Even when a law is justified or good, it may also be justified to break it.   It is illegal to steal.  Suppose someone will die within minutes unless I steal an antidote from a pharmacy - the pharmacy will not, for one reason or another, let me have it.   My lawbreaking is justifiable, maybe even obligatory.

But there's another little detail:  arming the FSA is not illegal.

What could make it so?  We hear dark talk about arming 'non-state parties'.  There is no law of any sort against this.  There is a proposed treaty that may or may not be ratified in July and which might ban such activity.  But a possible treaty is not an actual treaty and is not law.  Moreover an expert in international law has informed me that there is a great deal of uncertainty about who or what should count as a 'non-state party'.   Is the Palestinian Authority a non-state party, so that the US arms its police 'illegally'?  The FSA and SNC are recognized by some countries as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.   Is that enough to make the opposition a non-non-state party?  No one can say.

So blatant nonsense and plain falsehoods are deployed to crusade against 'arms trafficking', that is, legally providing arms so that Syrians can defend themselves against horrific attacks.   This is not what you would have expected if the issue has been arming something like the French Resistance.  But it's what passes for respectable moralizing when it comes to 'Arabs'.

Note:  Some arms came from Croatia, perhaps between November 2012 and February 2013 .  There is a EU arms embargo on arms to Syria.   Though it will become a member of the EU in July 2013, Croatia is not a member now, and the embargo binds only EU members.  What's more, the embargo expires at the end of May, and can be renewed only by unanimous consent.  So not even these deliveries run counter to any restrictions on arms trafficking.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Summary justice in Syria

World leaders from Iran and Russia to the US and UK seem deeply shocked at summary executions in Syria.  Numerous journalists, NGOs and bloggers tag along.  The outrage may have teeth to it - 'may have' because, though it puts people off arming the rebels, it's not clear that these tender hearts would have favored arming the rebels under any circumstances.

The charges of summary executions are correct.

No doubt the opposition in Syria kill some innocent people, and some people who may be guilty but not obviously so.   These are big problems, and no doubt the opposition's efforts to deal with them, even if sincere, are and will remain inadequate.   There is also little doubt that Western countries, even in wartime, have not practiced summary justice on a comparable scale.  Finally it is no longer as easy to claim that the rebels simply don't have the resources to keep prisoners until their guilt or innocence can be determined in a court of law.

It would be great if these were good enough reasons to suppose that there is some better alternative to summary justice.   But this is far from obvious.  The concerns about summary executions in Syria do not indicate a crisis of justice in Syria.   They indicate an unwillingness to recognize an extreme crisis in the nation-state systems of justice held up as a far superior alternative.  Courts of law, it seems, are not very good at determining guilt or innocence.   This holds for both the courts of nation-states and the international courts of justice.

Nation-state courts

Only one nation-state court system, the American, has been subjected to anything vaguely like scientific study.   Its workings have been scrutinized by The Innocence Project, which reviews previous convictions in (mostly) capital cases and relies heavily on DNA testing.   The result has been proof positive that, in numerous death-penalty trials, the wrong person was convicted.   Limited resources have confined the investigation to a few thousand cases, but these provide some basis for estimating the incidence of wrongful conviction among the rest.   The Project's investigators state that
We will never know for sure, but the few studies that have been done estimate that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent (for context, if just 1% of all prisoners are innocent, that would mean that more than 20,000 innocent people are in prison).
So the low estimate is 46.000; the high estimate 100,000. Large numbers, but not large percentages - are things really so bad?   Well, the estimate doesn't really tell us how many innocents are in prison.   It gets its percentages by comparing the number of exonerations to the number of cases reviewed.  But there most be more wrongful convictions than exonerations.  'Exoneration' involves proof of innocence.  The reviews often couldn't deliver proof:  they were impeded by lack of evidence, the passage of time, and uncooperative authorities. So no one would claim that the process succeeded in proving the innocence of every wrongly convicted person.  So the estimates are for the minimum percentage of innocents wrongfully convicted, those whose innocence could be proven.  So we don't know how much worse things really are.

There is a still greater problem:  when considering nation-state justice as an alternative to summary justice, you want to know not only if the innocent are convicted, but also if  both the innocent and the guilty get a fair hearing.  So you need to know not only of wrongful convictions in the nation-state system, but also of those convicted without a fair trials.   Well in the US, 95% of those convicted  of serious crimes receive no trial at all, because they have made a plea bargain.   Presumably very few of those can be counted as equivalent to fairly convicted.  No wonder lawyers are writing books with chapter titles like "The Myth of the Rule of Law in Capital Cases".   (And probably judicial procedures in non-capital cases are less, not more, fastidious.)  And if the rule of law is a myth in these cases, in this all-dressed-up judicial system, it's no longer obvious why that system is preferable to 'summary executions'.

Summary executions aren't just any sort of extra-judicial killings.  There are extra-judicial killings we can be sure are atrocities, when 2 year old or 80 year old civilians turn up with their bodies battered and mutilated.   Of course is it the régime that does this, not the FSA, not even The Islamists.  But these are not the cases that Western commentators are moralizing about. Their concern is with executions following quick and unofficial trials.  CBS, for example, 'confronted' a 'Jihadist' leader with a video which shows men being executed

They die quickly, by firing squad.

CBS journalists Clarissa Ward  and Scott Pelley call this 'revenge killing'.   On what grounds?   They show no sign of knowing anything about the trial, about the accusations,  about their truth or falsity, nor about what testimony led to convictions.   In most cases, human rights and media types who preach to opposition fighters haven't the slightest idea whether the trial was fair or whether the men are guilty.   All they know is that these events transpired without the false front of fairness and justice behind which lie the judicial travesties that send men to death in the United States.   Death and worse, but Americans do enjoy a good  joke on late-night TV about men who suffer years of oral and anal rape in prison, quite possibly at the hands of mentally disturbed sadists.  This a kind of coup de grace to the integrity of the justice system:  its flawed processes fill prisons where gross and grotesque violations of the rule of law are not only tolerated, but viewed by the citizenry with amusement.  So much for the pretensions of nation-state justice.

International courts

But, someone might say, don't compare extrajudicial killings to nation-state systems.   Compare them to the work of the International Criminal Court.  This court is sometimes taken very seriously.

The ICC may gather some of its prestige from an earlier creation,  the International Court of Justice.   It's gained respect from issuing advisory opinions on international disputes, something like a nation-state's civil courts.   Its verdicts are binding only if the parties antecedently agree to make them so.

The ICC, on the other hand, is something of a joke except to those who invoke it to amplify their piety.   It pretty well makes up rules of evidence and procedure as it goes along.   Its founding statue is not recognized by two Security Council members, the US and China- but in many cases a prosecution can occur only on Security Council approval!  More important, in the ten years of its existence, it has issued warrants for only 21 people, holds five in custody, and has actually convicted a grand total of one, with an appeal pending.   Hence the humor in the notion that the ICC offers some sort of recourse for victims of oppression.


The inadequacies of nation-state and international justice begin to make the case for summary justice.  The realities of political crime and punishment complete it.   The indisputable fact is that war criminals almost always escape punishment, and often go on to enjoy very good lives.  Even in a tightly controlled environment such as occupied Germany only a tiny fraction of Nazi criminals were convicted.   In Cambodia, hardly anyone will meet any form of punishment.  In Guatemala, the vile Rios Mott, 86, is only now on trial for crimes which ended 17 years ago.   And it's these leaders who are most likely to be prosecuted, not the lower-ranking monsters who do most of the actual killing, torture and mutilation.   This is hardly surprising given that 'due process' demands investigations which, by the time they occur, are too distant from evidence and reliable testimony to be fruitful.   Of course in Syria, to all these reasons for skepticism must be added faith that a reliable criminal justice system will in some unfathomable future arise - and if reliable, a system that far exceeds those currently operating in countries like the US today.

In short, Syrians have a choice between 'summary justice' and none.  That's what they'd likely get if they were foolish enough to heed the fifth-rate moralizing of Western commentators and human rights organizations.  These commentators, if they deserved their prestige, would take to heart the real possibility that summary justice in Syria is probably no more unjust than what is delivered (and not delivered) by national and international courts.
Note:  this updates an earlier piece on the same subject.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Egypt's army, or The Army's Egypt?

The not-very-discrete dominance of the army may be obvious to all Egyptians, but it's a delicate topic.  What follows makes a case for trying to end this domination.

Who has governed Egypt since 1952?

Nasser was an army man, but there is no doubt he governed, and not the army.   I don't know whether that can be said of Sadat or even Mubarak, but at some point in the post-Nasser era, the army emerged as a political power in its own right.   This power rests in part on popular support, and this in part derives from the army's past glories.   But to invoke these past glories is to replace current realities with an abstraction - not the army of today, but The Army.

The Institution, The Army, is esteemed for its role in the 1952 revolution - because some of its officers played that role.  But these officers are dead.  The Institution, The Army, fought admirably in the wars of 1956-1972 - because its soldiers did.    None of these soldiers, excepting some of the officer corps, are now in service.  The Army today, as an institution and a bunch of individuals, has no real connection to the glories of forty years ago.   These individuals haven't even had an opportunity to prove themselves.

There are indeed some senior officers whose careers began in the old days, but this doesn't make them heroes.    General Al-Sisi, Minister of Defence and Chairman of SCAF, has no combat experience whatever.  General Tantawi, his predecessor, had what is normally called a distinguished military career, but not, as far as I can tell, a heroic one.   He is misleadingly said to have started out as 'an infantryman' in 1956; in fact he began as a commissioned officer in the infantry.   Though he 'fought', i.e., commanded, in several wars, there don't appear to be any tales of great bravery or skill about him.   He may be deserving of respect, but not hero-worship.   Much the same must hold for virtually the entire active officer corps which has never been in any danger.   There may be a few heroes in the army, but there must be many more in the general population, veterans of Egypt's wars.

Perhaps, though, the army is venerated because it has a task fit for heroes, defending the territorial integrity of Egypt.   Here one must ask - against whom?   Egypt has only one serious potential enemy, Israel, and the army has neither the interest nor the capacity to defend against that enemy.   Because the army is wedded to the US, it can never hope to have anything remotely like military parity with Israel.   Since the army and government are well aware of this, they will never break the peace treaty, at least not in circumstances that lead to war.   So Egypt is very secure, in less than honorable circumstances, for reasons having nothing to do with military prowess.  This doesn't sit well with the army's apparently great concern for its 'honor'.

Given the current army's involvement in so many instances of cruelty and injustice, it's hard to see reasons to admire and respect it.

What then of the army's role as a political institution, and its relations with civilian politicians?

Ursula Lindsey notes that if Islamists can stretch the concept of democracy, so can the partisans of military rule.   But she would agree that appropriating a word hardly confers legitimacy.  She might also agree that not all sham democracies are created equal.   I have argued elsewhere that an Islamist 'democracy' in Egypt would be far more changeable - if not open to change - than military rule.   But today, I think, that's not the choice in prospect.  The choice seems to be between military rule in Islamist or in secularist dress.

Many have expressed outrage at Morsi's concessions to the military.  These include what one commentator, The Arabist, calls "unprecedented autonomy (in term of the history of Egypt's constitutional safeguards for the armed forces) in the constitution they backed."   But if these concessions are  new, it's because this was Egypt's first non-military presidency, and the army was confronted with the novel possibility of a government that might defy the military's will.   As for 'granted' and 'autonomy', these may not be the right words.

Morsi's 'grant' looks more like a surrender.   It involved what no leader would abandon except out of pure necessity - power over himself and any civilian successor.   It is simply inconceivable that someone would 'grant' this had he any viable alternative:   it was the price of Tantawi's retirement, and, given the circumstances, the price of Morsi remaining 'in power'.  He isn't really in power because his concessions destroyed whatever power he may have had.  The military has a stranglehold on the government because the post of defense minister must be an officer.

We have seen this before, in pre-World-War-II Japan.   There,
The Army and the Navy also had decisive say on the formation (and survival) of any civilian government. Since the law required that the posts of Army Minister and Navy Minister be filled by active duty officers nominated by their respective services, and since the law also required that a prime minister resign if he could not fill all of his cabinet posts, both the Army and the Navy had final say on the formation of a cabinet, and could bring down the cabinet at any time by withdrawing their minister and refusing to nominate a successor.
Though Egypt's government may not be formally obliged to fall if the defense cabinet post isn't filled, it could hardly survive with no minister in such an important post, especially since this would amount to the military's vote of non-confidence.  The requirement of a defence minister from the army effectively gives the army veto power over any civilian government.  Yet the opposition acts as if this informal dictatorship doesn't given the military enough supremacy.    It endorses the claim that "If Egypt is on the brink of default, if law and order is absent, [the military] has a national duty to intervene."

Egyptians are very rightly insulted when it's said that they're 'learning about democracy', but outside observers could be forgiven for recoiling at horror at something quite different, the opposition's idea of what is appropriate for the army in a serious nation.   For one thing, the idea that default should provoke military rule can only come from someone in the clutches of a colonial mentality, as if the army would now intervene like the British did in 1882!   For another, yes indeed, it is the duty of armies to intervene in certain crises of law and order.   But in nations not already under behind-the-scenes military rule, it's not the army that decides when it is time to intervene.  It's the civilian government.

That anyone could even suggest that the army should be the one to decide when it takes over the country is shocking but not unexpected in a nation where military leaders feel free to make statements for which they would instantly be cashiered elsewhere.   In so many ways, Western nations are contemptible in their management of domestic affairs, but this is one thing most of them have right.   A general has only to offer political opinions in public to end his career.   That generals should presume to call a conference on national reconciliation would be considered inconceivable insolence; that any civilian party would heed the call, pathetic.  Should a reader think I exaggerate, (s)he can consult the remarks for which US general Mcchrystal was forced into retirement - and this by one of America's most timid presidents.

You might reply that Egypt is different.  Indeed it is:  for instance, it differs in the extent to which its military imprisons and tortures its own citizens.   No doubt there are crises in Egypt, but nothing suggests that Egypt's military has either the expertise or the good will to be granted discretion over Egyptian domestic affairs.   Yet this is what it has been granted and this is what much of the opposition wants to extend.

It is a recipe for stagnation as well as subjection.  The army is a society and economy unto itself.   It's doing just fine; its future is bright.  Egypt's problems are not its problems.  Under army rule, Egypt will remain what Hamied Ansari called, in 1986, the stalled society.

Egyptians often speak of what embarrasses them about their country....


An afterthought:

Perhaps Morsi and the Brotherhood gave the Army paper supremacy in the hope that they'd be able to tear up the paper later on.  Maybe they think or thought that there is no hope of confronting the army now, but the concessions buy time during which a strong civilian government can emerge, partly through some accommodation with the National Salvation Front.  This strategy, though a long shot, would make sense to me.  However I've no evidence for it.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

How well-armed is the Syrian opposition?

What follows is an afterthought to Syria and the right to know.

The arms channels to the FSA have been uncovered by investigators expert in identifying types of armaments.   The identification process almost always involves examining uploaded YouTube videos.   Naturally these videos are designed to show something of interest to potential viewers, and naturally this means they often display some novel or relatively powerful weapon.

This very likely has led to a disproportionate emphasis on novelty and quality as opposed to quantity.  This emphasis runs up against the frequent assertion, from many quarters, that the rebels 'lack heavy weapons'.   The experts have now observed, several times over, every type of armament the FSA needs to defeat Assad.  True, there aren't any weapons effective against fixed-winged aircraft, but these aircraft are used so crudely and indiscriminately that their main effect is to slaughter civilians - militarily they're not decisive. The FSA has displayed some MANPADS models that should be very effective against helicopters, Assad's most strategically important air asset.   There are also recurrent videos of heavy artillery and capable anti-tank weapons.  And of course we've been offered fairly strong evidence of arms deliveries, perhaps several planeloads, from Croatia.

Despite all this, the FSA has a very difficult time defending its territory and an even more difficult time sustaining offensives.  No one suggests that's for lack of numbers, skill or courage.  The conclusion seems inescapable - the quality and sophistication of arms supplies tell us nothing about their adequacy without more attention to quantities.  But quantities are exactly what can't be ascertained, because videos and journalistic reports can't possibly reveal much about stockpiles throughout Syria.  (Imagine trying to determine how often an individual MANPADS appears in videos or reports.)  Though analysts may have offered evidence for an impressive the range of weapons, the course of the battle strongly suggests that they're not available in anything like sufficient quantities.   Most MANPADS, for example, don't have a particularly high success rate even with trained operators, and acquiring expertise would itself require a large number of firings.   There is basically no prospect of the FSA receiving anything like the required quantities through non-state channels.   It is equally clear that none of the channels come close to supplying arms and ammunition in strategically important quantities.  Other opposition groups are probably in the same position.

So whatever we may hear about current arms supply channels, or about the EU or the US eventually getting around to supplying some unspecified quantity of arms, we have to assume that the supply situation is desperate.   Any disruption of current supply channels has to be seen as a very serious matter indeed.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Syria and the right to know

Syria and the right to know

Recently there has been controversy about research which may have revealed some of the Syrian opposition's supply sources and routes.  How do these revelations weigh against the obligations of journalists and the public's right to know?

The specific professional obligations of journalists can't have much weight here:  journalists like everyone else are supposed to do the right thing.  Their professional obligations and their moral obligations, in this case, converge on the right to know.

When it comes to Syria you have to ask, whose rights are we talking about?  Normally the right to know is considered important because it allows the public to be informed participants in a democratic process, or at least in some sort of political process. If we're talking about Syrians, that sounds silly.  There are no political processes any more; there is a battlefield.  Syrians aren't going to be voting anyone out of office and when the government greets peaceful demonstrations with heavy weapons fire.  So deep concern about the Syrian public's right to know seems inappropriate.

Well, maybe what's important is the right of citizens of the various countries involved to know - Croatia, the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan.  But don't any such rights to be weighed against the harm done to Syrians?   Presumably no one would say that 'our' right to know would justify publishing the names of Syrian government officials planning their defection.   My right to know doesn't trump the right of innocents not to die under torture.

How harmful are the revelations?  That depends on at least two things:  (1) would the information be something Syrian military intelligence might like to have? and (2) would the governments involved be likely to shut down the routes were they made public?

Unless you're pretty sure that Syrian military intelligence already knew about the routes - and how would you be sure of that? - the answer to the first question has to be a firm 'yes'.  Syrian intelligence services are huge, powerful and sophisticated, more than capable of disrupting supply routes abroad.  They would want to disrupt those routes.

The answer to the second question is probably also 'yes'.  Presumably if nation-states didn't want their arms supply moves concealed, they wouldn't have concealed them.  And since all the countries involved could expect domestic and/or foreign opposition to the supply moves, they would have good reason to shut the routes down if made public. (Given Croatia's reaction to the revelations, it's virtually certain that if there was a supply route, they have in fact closed it.)  Yes, the nations involved could discretely establish other routes, but this would probably take a lot of time and severely weaken the supply effort.

Perhaps the revelations about arms supplies are defensible.  Perhaps the revelations weren't detailed enough to expose the routes, or the supplies weren't important, or the routes were bound to be exposed soon anyway, or other routes are easy to set up.  But it will be a lot harder to establish those claims than to arm-wave towards 'the public's' right to know.  It won't be enough to say that the story was put together from publicly available information:  most intelligence work derives from such sources.  And as disturbing as the issue itself may be, to dismiss it with platitudes is more disturbing still.