President Obama’s Plan To Arm “Moderate” Syrian Rebels Is A Bad Idea
After three years of mostly standing on the sidelines, and while one of the groups fighting the regime of Bashar Assad storms through Iraq and threatens Lebanon,President Obama is asking Congress for $500 million to arm so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels:
The Obama administration has proposed escalating US involvement in the Syrian civil war, asking Congress for $500m for the US military to train and equip “moderate” Syrian rebels.
The request to Congress on Thursday, heralded by Barack Obama’s vow, made during a speech at West Point military academy, to step up assistance to a beleaguered Syrian force, comes as the administration searches for effective alternatives to the jihadist army that has carved out massive swaths of Syria and Iraq for an Islamic state.
Previously, US aid to the Syrian opposition that is fighting dictator Bashar al-Assad focused on non-lethal provisioning, while the Central Intelligence Agency focused on sending small arms and missiles to what the US calls the “vetted” Syrian moderates. Yet the Gulf Arab states have established an arms pipeline giving a substantive military edge to jihadist groups fighting Assad and one another.
Caitlin Hayden, the National Security Council spokeswoman, said in a statement that the requested aid would “help defend the Syrian people, stabilize areas under opposition control, facilitate the provision of essential services, counter terrorist threats, and promote conditions for a negotiated settlement.”
US military training for the Syrians, three-and-a-half years into a conflict that has killed more than 150,000 people and recast the boundaries of the Middle East, is likely to take place in Jordan, where the US military already trains its Iraqi counterparts. It is also in line with Obama’s desired template for counterterrorism, as unveiled at West Point, in which the US trains foreign security forces to assault terrorists themselves.
Accordingly, a long-delayed war funding package, known for years as the Overseas Contingency Fund and before that a “supplemental”, includes $5bn for the administration’s heavily promoted Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund.
Some $1.5bn of that would go into a “regional stabilization initiative” for Syrian neighbors Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.
The overall size of the wartime funding package, distinct from the half-trillion annual defense budget, is $65.8bn, down from $79.4bn. Much of that money will go to funding the Afghanistan war now that Obama announced that 2014 will not mark its end but rather the end of most US combat.
On some level it seems incredibly odd for the United States has stayed mostly on the sidelines of the civil war in Syria. Except for providing non-lethal aid to the rebels and people in rebel controlled areas of the country, taking steps to help Turkey and Jordon deal with the massive and largely unreported refuge crisis that has engulfed both of their countries, and a brief, aborted, threat to attack Syria over its use of chemical weapons, we’ve largely stayed out of the fight. Some members of the House and Senate such as John McCain have been advocating that we aid the rebels by arming them and even imposing a no-fly zone, but the Obama Administration has largely resisted those calls. Indeed, in her new book Hillary Clinton relates that she was one of the people inside the Administration who advocating the idea of arming some element of the rebels, but President Obama rejected those arguments.
The decision not to arm the rebels strikes me as the wisest position to take notwithstanding the huge toll of life and limb that has been inflicted on Syria over the past three years. Even when the rebellion started, it wasn’t at all clear who the “good guys” among the Syrian rebellion actually were and there was obviously no way to ensure that any lethal aid that we might have provided would not fall into the hands of the dangerous and unsavory elements that rushed into Syria as the war widened. Additionally, it has never been clear that the Syria that would develop in the wake of the collapse of the Assad regime would be a regime that we would consider less dangerous, assuming that a united Syria even continued to exist at all. If a post-Assad Syria ends up resembling Iraq today, then it would drag neighbors such as Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority into the area. Such a Middle East would be far more of a headache, and far more difficult to deal with, than one in which the Assad regime stays in power. Given all of that, it has always struck me that there was no American national interest that argued in favor of arming any faction of the rebels.
Three years after the war started, the argument against arming the rebels seems even stronger than it was when the war started. In those ensuing three years, the radical factions of the rebellion have gotten stronger, and the lines between the so-called “moderates” and the Islamists have become even more blurred than they were at the beginning. Indeed, at the moment the two “winners” of the war so far seem to be the Assad regime, which continues in power notwithstanding the fact that many had predicted its downfall, and the Islamist wing of the rebellion, specifically groups like ISIS which are now as much a regional force as one devoted solely to the Syrian Civil War. Given that, why it would be a good idea to get deeply involved in the war at this point is utterly baffling.
Lisa Lundquist takes a similar position:
At this point, it is not entirely clear which vetted elements of the Syrian opposition can be relied upon to keep the arms out of the hands of the jihadists groups who dominate the battlefield, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), and al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the Al Nusrah Front.
As The Long War Journal has documented over the past year at least, in numerous instances previous US efforts to equip ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels have been compromised by the frequent partnering of ‘moderate’ and Islamist forces, as well as by the sheer power of the Islamist forces themselves. [See Threat Matrixreport, Arming the 'moderate' rebels in the Syrian south.]
It is difficult to see how throwing another $500 million into the Syrian morass will effect a positive outcome. Jihadist forces currently control virtually all of the border crossings into Syria from Turkey and Jordan (not to mention Iraq) through which Western aid would flow. It is a well-known fact that these jihadists determine the distribution of such supplies once they come into Syria.
Taking all of this into account, the Obama Administration’s desire to arm the so-called “moderate” rebels makes no sense. Congress should reject the request.
H/T: Andrew Sullivan