Small-arms plan may fuel civil wars

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Trump administration's business-friendly shift for sales of weapons will result in more illegal sales worldwide

The Trump administration is on the precipice of making a major mistake in its foreign policy.

As Reuters recently reported, the White House is preparing to shift oversight of the sale of American-manufactured small arms from the diligent State Department review process to the business-friendly Commerce Department.

By loosening the inter-agency guidelines in an attempt to boost the United States' share in the global marketplace, the Trump administration runs the risk of fuelling the civil wars currently bringing misery to millions worldwide.

The aim of this policy is to enable US weapons manufacturers to sell their products overseas quickly by trimming the red tape now governing the export of non-military grade weapons and ammunition.

According to the Reuters report, the new plan would mean that commercial gun exports would no longer be given the same scrutiny as missile and fighter jet sales, which often require congressional approval.

The shift would also move weapons such as assault rifles and handguns from the State Department's tightly-restricted Munitions List to the Commerce Control Lists, which allows for more streamlined licensing for international sales.

While the administration has explained these new procedures as a logical extension of a US president who is pro-business, the transfer of authority will have unintended and damaging foreign policy repercussions.

Unconventional conflicts within a sovereign state's territory, such as the war in Syria, have become the new normal.

Small weapons such as AK-47 assault rifles, Kalashnikovs, sniper rifles and low-grade explosives are used in most of these confrontations. They have many advantages for guerilla armies: An AK-47 is a lot cheaper than a tank, and it can be smuggled across borders.

As some senators wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in opposing the new rules, the civil wars and rebellions currently taking place are being fuelled by the illegal sales of what many Americans would categorise as sports rifles or hunting equipment.

Relaxing the rules on small arms exports is counterproductive to the US objective of de-escalating these conflicts - agencies and departments within the US government would in effect be working against one another, with the State Department hoping to end the very hostilities that are sustained by American-manufactured weapons.

Washington would not be deliberately arming combatants in a civil war, but the handguns and assault rifles American firearms manufacturers sell on the open market could find their way to a conflict zone through smuggling and diversion.

In one case last year, corrupt Jordanian intelligence officers sold a cache of rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov rifles that were destined for the moderate Syrian opposition to underground arms merchants.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation later determined that one of those weapons was likely responsible for the fatal shootings of two American contractors in Jordan that same year.

According to the Small Arms Survey, the US is already the world's top exporter of small arms, having reached US$1.1 billion (S$1.5 billion) in 2014.

The possibility that even a fraction of these commercial weapons could leak into a conflict zone would have a deeply negative impact.

The ease with which US arms companies will now be able to export their products may be terrific from a business perspective. But from the standpoint of international peace, this policy is a dangerous gamble for the White House to take. - REUTERS

The writer is a foreign policy analyst based in New York City.

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