Arming The “Good” Syrian Rebels Would Not Have Prevented The Rise Of ISIS

Dispelling a rising myth,


Yesterday, Hillary Clinton made news with some of her strongest criticism of the President’s foreign policy to date, and central to her argument is the idea that arming the Syrian rebels, which she advocated while Secretary of State, would have somehow prevented the rise of ISIS and thereby avoided the problems that group is creating in Iraq and elsewhere around the world today. Clinton isn’t alone in this position, of course. It’s one that has been repeated by Republicans such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and Congressman Peter King, all of whom have been advocating for more aggressive American action in Syria for years now. The basic logic of the argument seems to be that the United States could have prevented groups like ISIS from dominating the Syrian rebellion if they had found a way to figure out who the “good” Syrian rebels were and provided them with military assistance. The fact that this argument allows people like Clinton and McCain to argue that everything we’re dealing with now could have been avoided if only people had listened to them is, of course, more than coincidental since to a large degree it involves an effort on their part to advance their own political interest by claiming, with little evidence, that our current situation is the responsibility of those that disagreed with them.

As Marc Lynch notes, though, the idea that arming the “good” Syrian rebels could have accomplished anything like what these people are claiming doesn’t stand up to examination:

There’s no way to know for sure what would have happened had the United States offered more support to Syrian rebels in the summer of 2012, of course. But there are pretty strong reasons for doubting that it would have been decisive. Even Sen. John McCain was pretty clear about this at the time, arguing that arming the rebels “alone will not be decisive” and that providing weapons in the absence of safe areas protected by U.S. airpower “may even just prolong [the conflict].” Clinton, despite the hyperventilating headlines, only suggested that providing such arms might have offered “some better insight into what was going on on the ground” and “helped in standing up a credible political opposition.” Thoughtful supporters of the policy proposed “managing the militarization” of the conflict and using a stronger Free Syrian Army as leverage to bring Assad to the bargaining table.

Would the United States providing more arms to the FSA have accomplished these goals? The academic literature is not encouraging. In general, external support for rebels almost always make wars longer, bloodier and harder to resolve (for more on this, see the proceedings of this Project on Middle East Political Science symposium in the free PDF download). Worse, as the University of Maryland’s David Cunningham has shown, Syria had most of the characteristics of the type of civil war in which external support for rebels is least effective. The University of Colorado’s Aysegul Aydin and Binghamton University’s Patrick Regan have suggested that external support for a rebel group could help when all the external powers backing a rebel group are on the same page and effectively cooperate in directing resources to a common end. Unfortunately, Syria was never that type of civil war.


The idea that these rebel groups could be vetted for moderation and entrusted with advanced weaponry made absolutely no sense given the realities of the conflict in Syria. These local groups frequently shifted sides and formed alliances of convenience as needed. As MIT’s Fotini Christia has documented in cases from Afghanistan to Bosnia, and the University of Virginia’s Jonah Shulhofer-Wohl has detailed in Syria, rebel groups that lack a legitimate and effective over-arching institutional structure almost always display these kinds of rapidly shifting alliances and “blue on blue” violence. A “moderate, vetted opposition” means little when alliances are this fluid and organizational structures so weak.

The murkiness of the “terrorist group” line in this context is apparent in these changing alliances and conflicts. For instance, the United States recently designated two key Kuwaiti Islamists as terror financiers, accusing them of channeling funds to Jubhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. But both were better known as backers of Ahrar al-Sham, a large Salafist organization that then worked within the Saudi-backed Islamic Front. And as recently as June, when they were allegedly funding the Islamic State and al-Nusra, one of them was holding events with FSA commander Riad al-Assad. These complexities, so deeply familiar to everyone who studies the conflict, deeply undermine the assumptions underlying plans resting on identifying and supporting “moderate rebels.”

Many have argued that the United States might have changed all of this by offering more support for the FSA. But based upon his outstanding recent book “Networks of Rebellion,” the University of Chicago’s Paul Staniland urges caution. Initial organizational weaknesses have long-lasting implications. “Pumping material support” into them, he observes, “might buy some limited cooperation from factions that need help, but is unlikely to trigger deep organizational change. This means that foreign backing for undisciplined groups will not do much.” Syria’s famously fractured and ineffective opposition would not likely have been miraculously improved through a greater infusion of U.S. money or guns.

In short, then, discussion of U.S. support for Syria’s rebels overstates the extent to which such aid would matter given the diverse sources of support available. U.S. arms would have joined a crowded market and competed within an increasingly Islamist and sectarian environment. Even the argument that Islamist fighters would shave off beards and follow the money if the United States got involved is self-defeating, since it admits that they would just as easily flip back when a better offer comes along. Both state financing and the public campaigns exacerbated rebel fragmentation on the ground as each group jockeyed for access to lucrative external patrons. The United States had far less money to offer rebels compared with the Gulf states, and placed far more conditions. It might have been able to offer uniquely privileged access to advanced weaponry, which many rebels did dearly want. Anti-tank missiles did find their way to rebel groups anyway, of course, presumably with U.S. support. But it’s difficult to imagine any responsible U.S. official signing off on providing surface-to-air missiles, for reasons made graphically apparent by the shooting down of the Malaysian Flight MH17 over Ukraine.

Lynch hits on several important point, but the most important one is the fact that the distinction between the “good” and “bad” actors among the Syrian rebels was never easy to figure out to begin with, and was in many respects largely an invention of American politicians who were arguing in favor of greater American involvement in the Syrian war. That’s not to say that all of the rebel groups are jihadists, of course, but they clearly were allies with jihadists and were willing to work together with them in their fight against the common enemy in Damascus. More importantly, it became eminently clear not long after the war started that the jihadist backed forces were the stronger part of the rebel coalition, thanks in no small part to aid coming from governments and private individuals on the Arabian Peninsula. The idea that the United States would have been able to exert enough influence over the rebellion to make sure that “our” people were triumphant is yet another display of the kind of American arrogance that has gotten us in trouble around the world so many times before. While President Obama has done much in the realm of foreign policy worthy of criticism, his decision to avoid entanglement in the Syrian civil war is not one of them. Clinton, McCain, and the others are quite simply wrong about this.

Daniel Larison makes another excellent point that the advocates of arming the rebels fail to acknowledge, that our experience in Iraq from 2003 to 2011 stands as best argument against the idea that we could have influenced events in Syria:

One would think that events in Iraq over the last few months would dispel the illusion that U.S. arms and training guarantee that things will develop in a certain way. The U.S. spent years and enormous sums of money to train and equip the Iraqi army, and it was useless in preventing ISIS from seizing large parts of Iraq. There would not have been nearly as much time, training, or resources devoted to arming part of the Syrian opposition, which was in a much weaker position from the start, but we are supposed to believe that if it had started a year or two sooner it would have halted the emergence of these jihadist groups. More likely, the weapons supplied to “moderate” rebels would have been lost through conflicts with jihadists, or “moderate” rebels would have used those weapons to weaken the regime’s control and help to expose even more of Syria to the depredations of the most fanatical rebels. Insofar as the “moderate” opposition and jihadists coordinated against the regime, there would presumably be some pooling of resources, so it is also conceivable that U.S. arms would find their way into jihadist hands with the agreement of the Washington-approved rebels.

If the United States had armed the “good” rebels, assuming that we could have even identified them, then it is inevitable that those arms would have ended up in the hands of ISIS or one of its jihadist allies either via trades between the groups or by theft. Moreover, it is apparent that there was little that we could have done to stop our supposed allies from continuing to finance the more radical elements of the rebellion, just as they did in Libya. ISIS, which people tend to forget used to go by the name al-Qaeda in Iraq during the U.S. occupation, would have gained much the same influence over the Syrian rebellion that it had before, then, the only difference is that they would have done so with U.S. supplied weapons How exactly we would have been better off in this world that Clinton and the others wanted to create is beyond me.

FILED UNDER: Environment, Middle East, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. KM says:

    Didn’t we end up with bin Laden because we armed the “good” rebels way back when? Hindsight is a fickle bitch….

  2. humanoid.panda says:

    The idea that arming moderate rebels would have stemmed the rise of ISIS is especially stupid because the Iraqi army was indeed very well armed by same weapons and folded like a suit, letting ISIS having them. I don’t see how a similar dynamic could have been avoided in Syria, where the opposition was both splintered and lacked training and logistics and airpower. The fact that Hillary Clintion, who has no partisan interest in promoting this narrative apparently believes arming the rebels was a good idea is really and truly distressing.

    Also, I especially enjoy all the people who darkly insinuated that Benghazi was a way-station for American arms-running to Syrian rebels are now complaining that Obama dastardly refused to run arms to Syrian rebels.

  3. ralphb says:

    Assuming that arming “moderate” rebels originally would not have helped, and I don’t make that assumption automatically, then why is Obama now asking for $500 million to arm Syrian rebels? If it was horseshit before, it’s even stinkier horseshit now.

  4. Anderson says:

    Very sensible. Many arms we provided sooner or later would have ended up in ISIS’s eager hands.

  5. C. Clavin says:

    As Obama himself said of such criticism…

  6. michael reynolds says:

    The Larison point is the one I’d make. We had ten years to stand up an Iraqi army which collapsed in ten minutes.

    The United States has great power. But we have the power of the sledgehammer not the scalpel. We are not good at subtle or indirect or the long con. We are really good at blowing stuff up and outspending everyone. We are Godzilla.

  7. stonetools says:

    I’m sure that for every pundit Doug can quote saying arms to Syrian rebels would never have worked, I could supply one saying yes, of course it could have worked. Here’s one.Maybe we should remember that we live in a country whose successful revolutionary movement was aided by a foreign power.
    What we do know is that while the US did nothing, the Syrian conflict has spiralled from peaceful demonstrations, to armed rebellion, to civil war, to regional conflagration . At each stage noninterventionists counselled inaction, on the grounds that we could and should avoid involvement in the conflict. The result? We are now involved in a much wider war than envisaged.
    Frankly, this is not a great case for non-intervention. Just about nothing has worked out as the non-interventionists had hoped. The conflict did not limit itself, it did not “burn it itself out” and above all, they did not kill each other off.
    Maybe fostering a moderate rebel movement wouldn’t have worked. What we have to admit, reluctantly, is that doing nothing certainly didn’t work. There’s more than one myth at play here.

  8. stonetools says:

    AAAND, it looks that reports of an irreparable breach between Clinton and Obama over this issue have been exaggerated:

    The Clinton spokesman noted that Clinton and Obama had “honest differences on some issues” while she was serving in the Obama administration. He noted that the pair would see each other Wednesday night during a social gathering in Martha’s Vineyard.

    “Some are now choosing to hype those differences but they do not eclipse their broad agreement on most issues,” the Clinton spokesman said. “Like any two friends who have to deal with the public eye, she looks forward to hugging it out when she they see each other tomorrow night.”

    So, unfortunately for the media, there is no “war” in the liberal camp.

  9. KM says:

    @michael reynolds :

    We are Godzilla.

    More like the Hulk. We get angry and there goes the whole neighborhood. AMERICA SMASH!!!

  10. rudderpedals says:

    @stonetools: Very good FP article

  11. Ron Beasley says:

    The problem with arming the so called Syrian “moderates” is it was a collection of independent groups with no political leadership at the top – no command and control. Yes many of the weapons would have ended would have ended up in the hands of ISIS. There is a great picture of a smiling John McCain smiling with an ISIS leader. Obama made the right call.

  12. Ron Beasley says:

    Hillary Clinton has a neo-con editorial in the Weekly Standard. I don’t see how I can ever support her.

  13. JohnMcC says:

    @Ron Beasley: Surprised as you must have been, I looked at the link and it seems like WeaklyStarboard has taken verbatim remarks from HRC which she made during the Goldberg interview. They dressed it up as new.

  14. stonetools says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    That’s an aggregration of cherrypicked quotes. You’re responding to right wing agitprop cooked up to divide liberals and reassure right wingers. Here’s the full interview. Read that before you come to a conclusion. This is in part what she said about arming the rebels:

    HRC: Well, I did believe, which is why I advocated this, that if we were to carefully vet, train, and equip early on a core group of the developing Free Syrian Army, we would, number one, have some better insight into what was going on on the ground. Two, we would have been helped in standing up a credible political opposition, which would prove to be very difficult, because there was this constant struggle between what was largely an exile group outside of Syria trying to claim to be the political opposition, and the people on the ground, primarily those doing the fighting and dying, who rejected that, and we were never able to bridge that, despite a lot of efforts that Robert and others made.

    So I did think that eventually, and I said this at the time, in a conflict like this, the hard men with the guns are going to be the more likely actors in any political transition than those on the outside just talking. And therefore we needed to figure out how we could support them on the ground, better equip them, and we didn’t have to go all the way, and I totally understand the cautions that we had to contend with, but we’ll never know. And I don’t think we can claim to know.

    Yoiu’ll notice its a lot more nuanced than the snippets reported.

  15. dazedandconfused says:

    Another way to indulge in a counter-factual would be to say that had we supported Assad from the beginning, the civil war would not have reduced large portions of the country to a state of anarchy which allowed ISIS to flourish. This has the bonus of reminding us of our real, factual situation of having to accept Assad as a key ally in this struggle against them, whether we have the maturity to admit it or not.

    Not that Hillary would view that as a bonus, or anything….

  16. Ron Beasley says:

    @JohnMcC: @stonetools: I see you are correct, I should have been more observant.

  17. michael reynolds says:


    And it would have endeared us to Russia and Iran. Morally repugnant, but good diplomacy.

  18. Ben Wolf says:

    You can’t give someone a weapon and expect to control what they do with it. The NRA won’t shut up that guns are for self-defence and independence from government control; that changes when the same government hands out anti-tank weapons?

  19. OzarkHillbilly says:


    What we have to admit, reluctantly, is that doing nothing certainly didn’t work.

    You have to admit it kept us out of it, which is the only thing it was designed to do.

    “Don’t just do something, sit there!”

  20. Tyrell says:

    The best time to stop this ISIS was when they were crossing the open areas headed to Bagdhad. Now they are in the city and reports are that they are becoming more hidden and imbedded in the population, this a result of the air strikes. Now that is a scary thought. There are reports that thousands are joining them daily and they plan to move into other neighboring countries. I wonder what will happen they cross into Turkey.Thousands of people are fleeing, leaving everything (banks, utility control, weapons, information) behind. I don’t get how this country has not seized their bank accounts (close to a billion dollars).
    Sec. Of State Kerry finally got out of his on going stupor and was really unnerved about this picture of a kid holding up a head. Seems like his miguided father left Australia and they joined up with ISIS. Now that’s just great: you now have people leaving civilized countries to join this outfit of lunatics and serial killers. I guess next it will be Dr. Lecter!
    They finally showed a picture of who they think the leader of ISIS could be. Just what the world needs: another mideast terrorist leader who has a beard and wears a turban !!
    The president should have told this group from the start that every weapon we have is on the table. Including Obama care, videos of Congressional speeches, and convenience store coffee.

  21. rudderpedals says:


    The best time to stop this ISIS was when they were crossing the open areas headed to Bagdhad. Now they are in the city and reports are that they are becoming more hidden and imbedded in the population, this a result of the air strikes. Now that is a scary thought.

    Well it’s a good thing none of this fantasy happened. FFS Tyrell where do you get your information?

  22. Spartacus says:


    Just about nothing has worked out as the non-interventionists had hoped. The conflict did not limit itself, it did not “burn it itself out” and above all, they did not kill each other off.

    The non-interventionists had the very narrow and limited goal of keeping U.S. troops out of another civil war. So far, the plan has worked perfectly and achieved exactly what it was supposed to achieve.

  23. Tyrell says:

    It has just been reported that ISIS has killed several more people and captured women and children. They have threatened to give these women to their soldiers.
    Something more must be done immediately to get rid of these barbarians. Where is the UN ?

  24. stonetools says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: @Spartacus:

    You have to admit it kept us out of it, which is the only thing it was designed to do.

    “Don’t just do something, sit there!”

    Uh, no it didn’t. We’re bombing targets, and sending advisers, arms, and humanitarian relief to Kurdistan to rescue them from ISIL, a Syrian-based insurgent army. IOW, we are involved in what used to be the Syrian civil war but which is now a wider regional war.