Malaysia Airlines flight 17

MH17 crash a wake-up call to stop the supply of weapons to insurgents

Hari Kumar says the MH17 crash underlines the need to stop rebel groups with the right connections acquiring powerful weapons

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 12:39pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 July, 2014, 1:40am

The crash of a Malaysian passenger jet over eastern Ukraine has brought into focus the horrors of a conflict in which powerful countries play proxy games. From all indications, Flight MH17 was hit by a land-based missile and the blame game is now on between the West and Russia as to who was responsible for the tragedy.

US President Barack Obama and other Western leaders have blamed Moscow for supplying heavy weapons to the rebels who are battling the government in Kiev. But claims and counterclaims by different sides are clouding the picture.

Ukrainian officials claim they have evidence that rebels got the missiles from Russia. The Kremlin, so far, has denied helping or arming the rebels despite evidence of their overt and covert role in the conflict. Moreover, reports coming from the conflict area had spoken of rebels seizing Ukrainian arms and bases. Given this, the task of proving the missiles came from Russia is going to be difficult.

Providing heavy arms to insurgent groups when politics suits you is a double-edged sword. And both the US and Europe have done this over time.

The introduction of heavy weapons has changed the course of some wars, notably the supply of Stinger missiles by the US to mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan. Some analysts point to that as the biggest factor in the Soviet army's defeat in Afghanistan. After the Soviets withdrew, the US government spent millions trying to buy back those missiles.

The case of Libya is another example. European nations, notably Britain and France, were active in their support of rebels fighting Muammar Gaddafi. The country is still awash with weapons, and battles between different armed groups are pushing the country towards anarchy.

As conflicts rage in different parts of the globe, and powerful countries take sides, the proliferation of sophisticated weapons is spreading.

Some countries have been openly advocating the sale of heavy arms to rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad's government in Syria. The US has so far resisted. But its allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been pushing for this and have even reportedly supplied arms to some rebel groups.

The chance of these weapons ending up in the wrong hands is a threat that should give many security agencies sleepless nights. The recent creation of an Islamic state by rebel fighters in Iraq and their parade, complete with some heavy weapons, clearly showed the inherent dangers of such a policy.

As the investigation into the MH17 crash gets muddled in international politics, reaching a finding that all sides will agree on appears remote. But what no side can deny is the catastrophic effect of weapons in the wrong hands. Tragedies like MH17 have been rare so far because weapons like surface-to-air missiles have been under the control of governments. Now, with insurgent groups acquiring powerful friends, non-state armies are getting hold of such weapons, making the whole world vulnerable.

World leaders may not agree on who is guilty for the MH17 crash. But what they can do is forge a pact that will make it harder for countries to supply heavy weapons to rag-tag armies, whatever their political compulsions.

Hari Kumar is a Post journalist