The Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday approved legislation to have the United States provide small arms and ammunition to the Syrian opposition. While it’s good news that a bipartisan array of senators recognizes the high costs of American passivity, I’m less sanguine than some of my colleagues about the wisdom of arming the Syrian opposition. Alas, there’s a conceit in Washington that we can have open-ended policy debates and pretend that the ground truth hasn’t shifted in the meantime. Just because something was wise two years ago, 18 months ago, or one year ago doesn’t make it wise now. Timing matters.
During the years the Obama administration spent dawdling its thumbs, the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime radicalized. It’s one thing to hold meetings with moderates in Istanbul or Doha, but it’s quite another to pretend they hold influence on the ground. True, the Nusra Front — now openly sympathetic to Al Qaeda — is not as large as the Free Syrian Army, but quantity doesn’t always presage victory: Winning on a battlefield is not the same as competing at the ballot box. It’s the most militant, radical factions which fight the hardest. Add to that the likelihood that Turkey is supporting Nusra (and casting aspersions on those who challenge its support for Jihadists) and it appears the powers that be in Ankara don’t actually want the moderates to win.
Nor should the Senate be sanguine that we can differentiate between the radicals and the moderates (whatever that means in the Syrian context). If the US government was unable to vet two Chechen brothers living in suburban Boston, it’s silly to have confidence that they can separate ‘good Syrians’ from ‘bad Syrians.’ It is also naïve to believe that those who are moderate today will not pivot and accommodate those who are less moderate tomorrow. What Afghanistan was in the 1980s, Chechnya was in the 1990s, and Iraq was in the 2000s, Syria has become today for radical Jihadists.
That’s not to say we should cast our lot with Assad’s brutal dictatorship. Assad winning is like dying of cancer; the radicals winning is like dying of a heart attack. It’s long past time the United States focused on preventative medicine. So what should Washington do?
- The key threat to the United States emerging from Syria is loose chemical weapons. The Pentagon won’t be able to secure these — in Libya, it took more than a week for American experts to decommission Muammar Qadhafi’s program in 2003, and that was without anyone shooting at them. Perhaps it’s time to take a page from the Israeli playbook, enforce our red line, and bomb the heck out of these depots and weaponry. It might cause some contamination — but leafleting before a strike might mitigate collateral damage. The objective has to be to keep such weapons out of the hands of both sides.
- It’s always good to help the refugees, although it might be best to focus on refugees in Jordan. It’s hard to take Turkish complaints about the financial toll of hosting refugees seriously when Ankara has plenty of money left over to help Hamas.
- If Iran and Syria are state-sponsors of terror for supporting Hezbollah, then Turkey and Qatar should be for supporting the Nusra Front. Of course, it’s not realistic to designate them as such right now, but putting designation on the agenda will be a wake-up call for a Turkish government that no longer takes America seriously.
- The proper analogy to the Syrian conflict is not the Libyan civil war, Part II, but rather Bosnia. In this case, remember Slovenia — a Western-oriented region that escaped the Yugoslav Wars after just 10 days. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) largely controls northeast-eastern Syria and its predominantly Kurdish population. The PYD is secular and moderate. Alas, the Obama administration is boycotting them, even denying their leader Salih Muslim a visa. Why? Because of that group’s ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group which once engaged in terrorism but now openly pursues peace with Turkey. It’s time to delist the PKK and, while we’re at it, the PYD as well.
- Forget a no-fly zone: First, that wouldn’t do much good against pickup-driving irregulars. Second, Turkey can’t be trusted to host US planes without looking at it as an opportunity for Pakistan-style extortion.
- Eventually, one side will win and one side will lose. Both sides are noxious. I won’t be as cynical as Daniel Pipes and suggest it is a US interest to perpetuate the conflict. The US should remain committed to Assad’s ouster (and not simply pretend, “Geneva II”-style). Rather, just as in Iraq, we need to target the Al Qaeda wannabes who flock to the fight. Here is where our airpower and our predators should come into play. And if they happen to knock out Hezbollah targets as well, well three cheers for shooting bad guys in the proverbial barrel. Lest anyone worry about tit-for-tat violence, remember: Hezbollah started it in 1983, with the Marine Barrack bombing, and Al Qaeda started a decade later with the first World Trade Center attack.
- Only with Assad and the radicals degraded would moderates have a chance. Rather than throw ammunition into the fire, perhaps it’s time simultaneously to plan for a Free Iraqi Forces model to enter the scene after the Nusra Front and Assad consign each other to the dustbin of history.