The Hubris of Meddling in Syria: Exporting Wahabism From Kabul to Damascus
The status quo in Syria is that the rebel insurgency and the Assad regime continue to clash, neither budging, while foreign powers are engaged in an indirect proxy war because the split at the UN Security Council has ruled out any internationally mandated military intervention. The Russians and the Iranians continue to the support the Assad regime and the US and its allies in Europe and the Gulf Arab states are funneling aid and weapons to the fractured opposition fighters. I’ve spent months arguing against not just Western and Sunni Arab meddling, but also the meddling on behalf of the Syrian regime. The reasons are many and you can read a plethora of posts going into why this meddling is prolonging the conflict and is antithetical to the stated aims of the foreign powers, the latter part at least in the case of the U.S. and the Gulf states.
But there is another reason that supporting either side in this civil war is an extremely bad idea. Indirectly intervening can have unintended consequences that go far beyond the immediate ramifications on the ground. And recent history demonstrates this all too well.
Aaron David Miller discusses indirect intervention from the perspective of the Sunni Gulf states:
Turning the Shia-affiliated Alawi regime into a Sunni one that can be influenced would be a tremendous victory for the Gulf Arabs. It would weaken the Iranians and break the exaggerated but still very real threat of Shia encirclement — Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. And that’s why Riyadh is backing the rebels with money and arms and allowing individual Saudi clerics to sermonize about jihad and encourage non-Syrian foreign fighters to carry it out. This, of course has a potential downside. We saw the blowback in Afghanistan, where Saudi-inspired Wahhabi doctrine motivated a cadre of Arabs to fight first against the Russians and then against the West.
U.S.-Saudi interests were similarly aligned back when the Soviets invaded and occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s. The CIA funneled money to the mujahideen through Pakistan while Saudi Arabia – its Gulf neighbors in lock-step – funneled money, weapons, and actual fighters to join in the insurgency. The unintended consequences of this became so relevant and obvious post-9/11 that the intervention has become lionized as a “seemed-good-at-the-time-but-oh-hell-what-a-screw-up” foreign policy artifact. I can’t imagine anyone in the State Department or in the Saudi monarchy is thinking about how aiding the Syrian opposition might backfire 10 years down the line. The fact that Sunni extremists and al-Qaeda-type militants are a part of the opposition is well known, as is the fact that they have committed serious crimes throughout the conflict.
Aside from the immediate tactical and moral issues with giving support to these fighters, the arrogance of the power-weilding foreign meddlers is a thing to marvel at. Not only do they think they are all-knowing and all-powerful enough to craft and mold a particular outcome pursuant to their unscrupulous interests, but they have the hubris to disregard the possible consequences their interventions may breed far into the unforeseeable future. While making the current conflict worse, they are potentially laying the groundwork for future catastrophes.