Foreign and Defense Policy, Middle East and North Africa

Is arming the Syrian opposition a good idea?

Image Credit: REUTERS

Image Credit: REUTERS

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.

3 thoughts on “Is arming the Syrian opposition a good idea?

  1. I Disagree with you on this matter!
    The main threat to the US in the MiddleEast is the Iranian project !!!!
    The Syrian war is a proxy Iranian War !!!
    I will summarise recent events and in such cases you have to take the lesser Evil!!!!

    On Syria Events May,2013

    The Hesitancy of the US toward involvement in Syria manifested in Breaking one redline after the other pushing the Israeli strike to Damascus recently . 
    This strike did an equal damage and had a detrimental effect to the Syrian people .equal to that of the  radical rebels to the revolution…
    This lead to A big Zeal wave in the Islamic World  including #Hezbollah & #Iranian pivotal Strategic involvement in the Syrian conflict .
    . This ,leading to gains  by the Regime on the Ground .
    Even the Arab league hiding behind his finger decrying the israeli strikes publicly . While watching the havoc destruction of Syria & its people.
    The new gains were already made in the lions den , i.e Damascus and Homs to establishing a regime rule arch area stretching from latakia on the Mediterranean to Damascus  , leaving ,however,a vast majority of syrian big Provinces Aleppo , idlib and Al raqqa  under Rebel control .
    This lynch pin events addociated with a morphine shot for a possible political solution suggested by Russia and the US means  the Syrian political solution is futile & the prospective lingering of misery to go on for A while .
    The bet now is on the #EU & #Turkey to take actions leading to a safe zone & conseq to a dramatic game changer  in the sequence of events of the syrian war . But this is pending Erdogan Trip to the US trying to change #Obama’s paasive policy toward Syria .
    If Regime continues his Gain Streak till the #SNC meeting in istanbul on the 23rd  the Status quo will continue for now in #Syria .

  2. Clarification :

    Clarifications:

    -Associated with A morphine Shots …

    -Erdogan’s recent trip to Washington Did not bring a change to The passive US policy on Syria .

  3. Fully agreed! One small niggle – you suggest it might have been wise a year ago to “arm the rebels” but the situation on the ground has since changed. It was never possible to choose our Syrians, arm them, train them and expect that they would win the day on the battlefield. The various jihadists & the Syrian army plus Hezbollah all had more money, more training, more coordination than we could have provided to the FSA, so “our guys” would always have been behind, even if they were truly secular moderates who would have loved us when it was over. But they never are – US experience w/Palestinians, Malians, Pakistanis, Afghans & Iraqis tells us that we can make them better killers with our training & arms, but we can’t ever ensure that they’ll the people we want dead. Maybe its not a small niggle.

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