President Obama’s Plan To Arm “Moderate” Syrian Rebels Is A Bad Idea

For some reason, President Obama wants to arm so-called "moderate" Syrian rebels.

Obama Marine One

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

FILED UNDER: Congress, Middle East, Military Affairs, National Security, Terrorism, 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. Ron Beasley says:

    Well Doug, there are a few things we can agree on and this is one of them. The anti Assad “moderates” are a small minority now. If we give them weapons they will just end up in the hands of the crazies. I think it’s time we realize that Assad, as bad as he is, probably beats the alternative.

  2. @Ron Beasley:

    Much like the Iran-Iraq War, the best strategy may be to let the two sides destroy each other

  3. Gustopher says:

    The only thing that can stop bad guys with guns is good guys with guns.

  4. Ron Beasley says:

    I really have to wonder if this is a political move on Obama’s part. He really doesn’t want to do this but thinks that Congress will not approve it. This will take the wind out of the sails of supper hawks like McCain and Graham.

  5. lounsbury says:

    @Gustopher: Yes in movies.

  6. Tillman says:

    @Ron Beasley: I suppose that’s the hope.

    On the other side, you have the liberal interventionists chopping at the block to prove they can be as dumb as neocons.

  7. michael reynolds says:

    Oh good, one more armed faction. I’m pretty sure that’ll clear everything up.

  8. lounsbury says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Quite right. And support the allied neighbours. Illustratively Jordan.

  9. James Pearce says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Much like the Iran-Iraq War, the best strategy may be to let the two sides destroy each other

    Much like Bosnia, the “don’t arm em” gambit isn’t going to result in “the two sides destroying each other.”

    It’s going to result in the stronger side destroying the weaker.

    I’m not saying it’s the right play, but sometimes it’s actually wiser to hold your nose and “arm the rebels.”

  10. DC Loser says:

    I think we’ve come to the realization that, as distasteful as Assad is, he is the best of the bad options we have in Syria. I think Israel has come to the same conclusion.

  11. edmondo says:

    $500 million?

    The people of Detroit who can’t pay their water bills must wonder WTF they have to do to get half of that. Maybe they should claim ISIS has attacked their water supply.

    Why is it that this country always seems to have money for more wars?

  12. Another Mike says:

    It seems like a very bad idea to me. It seems that we just never learn.

  13. Grewgills says:

    @Ron Beasley:
    I hope you’re right and the reflexive no to anything Obama says he wants from the Republicans comes down the pipe and kills this idea.

  14. Gustopher says:

    Where will this $500M in new spending come from? Do we have some programs for poor people left to cut so we can offset this?

  15. Tillman says:

    @Ron Beasley: I’m thinking some decade in the future there will arise an intellectual from Syria who will have gone through the war and will implicate us morally for failing to stop the slaughter.

    [S]he’ll never say what we could have done, just that we should have done it.

  16. stonetools says:

    Much like the Iran-Iraq War, the best strategy may be to let the two sides destroy each other

    There are interventionist illusions and there are non interventionist illusions and one of the latter is “Let the two sides destroy each other”. Herb is right, down voters. What happens is that generally one side wins and you have to deal with the victor, who is generally going to be the biggest, strongest, and meanest group. An example is Afghanistan after the Russians pulled out. We tried the “Let God sort ’em out ” policy and ended up with the Taliban and al Qaeda. How did that work out for us?
    Timing is everything, though. Had we intervened to arm the moderates who were the initial demonstrators in Syria, we could have had a chance for the moderates to be the leaders of the Syrian opposition. Unfortunately, we expected a moderate rebel army to emerge “spontaneously” without outside help. Meanwhile, Islamists in the Gulf states poured money into jihadist groups. Unsurprisingly , the jihadists squeezed out the moderates and here we are.
    Noninterventionists also seemed to believe that the jihadists would kindly remain in Syria. Wrong again, Bob. The jihadists don’t give a camel’s f@rt about lines drawn on a map by some infidel a century ago. For them the entire Middle East is dar’ al-islam , so they don’t recognize borders between Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. Its all one battleground to them.

    What’s to be done? Hell if I know. $500M
    worth of military aid to moderates might have worked in 2011 or 2012, but it probably won’t get the job done today. (Won’t hurt either, though).
    I’m thinking we might have to get used to the following: A partitioned Iraq with Kurdistan,a rump Shiastan that’s a client state of Iran and a radical Sunnistan that extends from western Iraq to north Lebanon, with a Shia enclave in south Lebanon, a Christian enclave in central Lebanon and an Alawite enclave in north Syria. We should start work on propping up Jordan STAT ( because they’ll needs LOTS of propping). And forget nonsense about “both sides destroying each other.” That won’t happen.

  17. al-Ameda says:

    We have no idea of what to do about radicalism and civil war in this region.

    Our European allies, unlike us, don’t seem to be struggling with a decision to sit this one out. Not only that, didn’t we (our Congress) in the not so distant past, decline (rightfully) to give Obama authority to launch air strikes in Syria if he deemed it necessary? We preferred then, as now, to let Putin take the lead. Well, let’s stay that course for a while.

  18. george says:

    This is what they call in baseball an unforced error.

  19. President Camacho says:

    History has taught us this always turns out well

  20. bill says:

    wouldn’t drones be cheaper/more effective? fast n furious is still on my mind maybe but what defines “moderate” over there anyway?

  21. Tillman says:

    @george: I prefer the chess term zugzwang — “no good moves.”


    “As long as things are in their beginnings they can be controlled, but once they have grown to their full consequences they acquire a power so overwhelming that man stands impotent before them.”
    — Richard Wilhelm

  22. DrDaveT says:


    worth of military aid to moderates might have worked in 2011 or 2012, but it probably won’t get the job done today. (Won’t hurt either, though)

    You mean, “Won’t hurt any more than diverting half a billion dollars from useful spending to useless spending usually does.” Why do people think that military expenditures magically have no opportunity costs, while every domestic nickel spent is precious?

    You have to pay it back some day, and you do that by failing to fund programs that would have saved lives, fed people, housed people, protected people from fraud, cleaned up federally-created toxic messes, collected taxes that otherwise would not have been paid, etc. etc. etc.

  23. rachel says:

    I have a few questions about this request. First, how likely is it that this Congress will give the President what he’s asking for? Second, what does the President think the odds of them saying “Yes” are? And third: what is he really playing at?

  24. dazedandconfused says:


    Just humoring Don Quixkerry’s latest “Nobel” quest, most likely.

  25. stonetools says:


    I would agree with you, Dr, in a rational world. But we are here in Tea Party world, where the Republican party has convinced itself that ALL social spending is evil (chiefly because some of it might end up in the pockets of Those People).So the choice here is between military spending (which is always holy and just and good) and redirecting the money towards tax cuts for billionaires or subsidies for corporations( because Ayn Rand or something).
    So you we have to put up for guns-or-butter-analysis for another day, I’m afraid

  26. stonetools says:

    Well, lookahere, ISIS has now declared a Caliphate, stretching over the most of the area I earlier designated “Radical Sunnistan”. Think I nailed that one. Plus Israel is now calling for a recognition of Kurdistan, which means that soon AIPAC and the neocons will be doing the same.
    Upon reconsideration of Obama’s call to arm Syrian moderates, I’m thinking that this can be recast as a call to help Jordan, which is probably next on the Sunni jihadist’s list of targets. Jordan is vulnerable , and it neighbors Israel (a vital interest for the US, according to many). More important strategically is that Jordan is the Islamists’ land bridge to the KSA, which means OIL! If there is anything that will turn Rand Paul into a raging interventionist, it’s a threat to OIL!
    Obama can argue that if Syrian moderates are fighting jihadists in Syria, then the jihadists aren’t fighting King Hussein in Jordan. Remember when we thought that the Syrian rebellion was a local conflict that posed no possible threat to US interests? Good Times.

  27. stonetools says:


    Its entirely possible that Obama threw this to Congress, just to see the Republicans tie themselves into knots over this. On one hand, you will have the neocon crowd arguing that this is a drop in the bucket and we should be doing airstrikes and sending a lot more advisors. OTOH, you’ll have the Rand Paul crowd arguing that we shouldn’t intervene, because we can’t afford it, etc. The Democrats can sit in the peanut gallery and comment on the fireworks.
    This will move the focus too, off questions about Obama’s leadership. He can justifiably say, “See, I’m trying to lead, but Congress won’t let me.”

  28. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Bad idea. Bringing up the idea, is a bad idea.

  29. OzarkHillbilly says:


    Remember when we thought that the Syrian rebellion was a local conflict that posed no possible threat to US interests? Good Times.

    Remember when we were arming rebels in Afghanistan? Ah, good times. On the more serious side, getting involved in this mess will not help us. And if something bad happens to us in the future, it is just as likely to NOT be because we stayed out of it. The idea that we can control or ameliorate the consequences of this current melt down by getting involved is not born out by history. Outside of humanitarian assistance, we should do nothing

  30. stonetools says:


    Well, we’ve essentially done nothing since the Syrian crisis broke out. Non-intervention all the way. Is that really working out for us? Consider this: we’ve done nothing while the Syrian crisis has grown from peaceful demonstrations, to armed rebellion, to a civil war, to an international crisis. Maybe the case for doing nothing ought to be reconsidered. Are we going to wait till IS marches into Riyadh until we decide that OK, maybe some action is called for?
    Of course doing something doesn’t mean a call for doing the wrong thing. My own feeling is that we should try to help whatever moderates there might be in Syria, but focus on shoring up Jordan. That’ll seem defeatist to neocons, but I think that the partition of Syria-Iraq along the lines I spoke of above is likely now. What we have to do is make sure the Sunni Islamists don’t take Jordan too. To put it in Cold War terms, I’m talking about containment, not rollback.

  31. Rob in CT says:

    The funny thing is that if you asked me to choose “moderates” in Syria, I might pick Assad…

    Anyway, I agree this is a bad idea. I thought it was a bad idea the last time the issue was raised. Hell, if you find yourself functionally agreeing with John McCain on foreign policy, you probably need to step back and reconsider.

  32. Tillman says:

    @stonetools: If he proposed helping Jordan, I’d be perfectly fine with that. Turkey, Jordan, let’s give them assistance to deal with the fallout. But stay out of the civil war itself.

  33. Robin Cohen says:

    Most of what Obama has done have been bad ideas poorly thought out and executed.
    We have never been successful in our attempts to stabilize the Middle East because we cannot grasp the notion of religious war in the 21st century. Time to put the needs of Americans first.
    Nuts to his latest dumb idea of spending 2 billion dollars to repatriate children , house them, or serve in loco parents in any way. Nuts to Obama.

  34. al-Ameda says:

    @Robin Cohen:

    We have never been successful in our attempts to stabilize the Middle East because we cannot grasp the notion of religious war in the 21st century. Time to put the needs of Americans first.

    We made a big mistake in 2003.
    Speaking of poorly formed ideas and policies ….

  35. Robin Cohen says:

    @al-Ameda: All of the Bush years were a mistake. In particular, the ill-advised wars were disastrous and should never have happened. Obama apparently has learned nothing from Bush’s stupidity.