No, We Should Not Arm The Syrian Rebels
The argument that the United States should start assisting the rebellion in Syria has many flaws.
Walter Russell Mead argues that the United States should consider arming the Syrian rebelsin order to avoid a worse outcome:
The worst case for the United States in a post-Assad Syria would be that groups linked to al-Qaeda become dominant players either in the country’s government as a whole or in control of significant regions in a country that fragments. Such groups would be nests of terrorists acting to destabilize not only Syria itself but Iraq, Lebanon, and the wider Middle East. They would certainly be active in Russia and, through extensive ties with the Arab diaspora in Europe, add considerably to the security headaches the West faces. They would be actively working to destabilize governments across the Arab world as well and providing shelter, training, and arms to terrorists from all over. In a worst, worst case scenario, they get hold of Assad’s WMD stockpiles and start passing them out to their friends. The United States does not want any of this to happen. We could not long stand idly by if it did. Aiding the less ugly, less bad guys in the Syrian resistance, and even finding a few actual good guys to support, isn’t about installing a pro-American government in post civil war Syria. It’s about minimizing the prospects for a worst-case scenario—by shortening the era of conflict and so, hopefully, reducing the radicalization of the population and limiting the prospects that Syrian society as a whole will descend into all-out chaotic massacres and civil conflict. And it’s about making sure that other people in Syria, unsavory on other grounds as they may be, who don’t like al-Qaeda type groups and don’t want them to establish a permanent presence in the country, have enough guns and ammunition to get their way. This is not a plan to edge the United States toward military engagement in Syria; it is aimed at reducing the chance that American forces will need to get involved.
Daniel Larison strongly disagrees:
Shortening the conflict is almost certainly not what will happen. Arming the opposition in Syria will prolong the conflict by providing at least some anti-regime forces with the means to keep fighting much longer than they could without this support. The goal of such a policy is to bring about regime collapse, which will make for even more “all-out chaotic massacres and civil conflict.” Helping to collapse the existing government will create a vacuum that terrorist groups can and will exploit. This is not something we have to speculate about. We’ve seen it happen in Iraq, and we have started to see it to some extent in Libya, and of course it is clearly happening in northern Mali where the authority of the Malian government has completely collapsed.
Larison has the better side of the argument here, I think.
He’s correct to point out that arming the rebels, or some small faction of them assuming that we can even correctly identify who the “good” guys are at this point, is more likely to prolong the conflict than it is to shorten it. It’s fairly clear that the Syrian Army remains both largely loyal to the regime and well armed, that last part thanks in no small part to arms shipments that continue to come in from Iran and Russia. If the West were to step up its efforts to arm the rebellion, then it’s rather obvious that Syria’s remaining allies would similarly step up their efforts to reinforce the Assad regime. Since the Syrians are the ones who have the heavy weaponry and the aircraft, that would seem to indicate that they’d have the ability to hang on for quite some time unless there was some kind of game changer like a military coup or a military intervention from the outside. So, arming the Syrian rebels isn’t likely to shorten the conflict at all.
Additionally, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that lengthening the Syrian Civil War (and that’s exactly what it is at this point no matter what the experts call it) doesn’t strike me as the best way to diminish the possibility that radical forces will end up gaining control of the country at some point in the future. Indeed, a long and prolonged civil war would seem to be fertile breeding ground for the radicals. They are the ones who seem to be most dedicated to their cause, after all, and thanks to a largely open border with Iraq it’s fairly easy for them to slip into the country. We saw the same phenomenon during the Libyan war when radical elements latched onto the rebellion that took birth in Benghazi. Now, they’ve implanted themselves in the vast stretches of Libya’s eastern and southern desert areas, and, as Larison notes, they have had a significantly damaging impact on the political stability of Libya’s neighbor Mali. Is there anyone who doubts that the radicals that are part of the amorphous Syrian rebellion would end up acting in a similar manner?
That brings in the final complication that Mead seems to ignore in his argument. We’ve already seen how the Libyan Civil War has impacted at least once of that nation’s neighbors. Syria exists in the middle of the most volatile region on the planet, bordered on its west by Lebanon, its east by Iraq, and on its south by Israel and Jordan. A post-Assad Syria that mirrors to some extent what we saw in a post-Qadaffi Libya would be a complete and utter disaster not only for Syria, but also for the entire Middle East. It would potentially mean a return to internal conflict in Lebanon as Hezbollah attempts to grab power to make up for the loss of its primary sponsor, increased assertions of independence by the Kurds in Syria’s Northeast that could easily spread into Turkey and Iraq, and, of course, there’s the possibility of militants near the Golan Heights threatening Israel, which would just inflame the situation even more.
Situations like this are always difficult from a humanitarian point of view. It’s very tempting to say that we need to step in any time an oppressive government is doing horrible things to the citizens of the nation it purports to rule. We can all make plenty of speeches about the good intentions we have when we intervene in situations like this. However, as the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We’ve intervened in many nations over the years, and the results have been less than spectacular. Perhaps we should think twice before embracing these Syrian “freedom fighters.”