The War to Come in Syria
The pressure for Washington to add more heft to their support for the Syrian rebels is heating up again. Secretary of State John Kerry announced today that the US will, in what Reuters describes as “for the first time” send “non-lethal aid” directly to Syrian rebels (that is, instead of through third parties, which is reportedly what they’ve been doing until now). Kerry said the US will “more than double its aid” to the Syrian opposition, while also offering “equipment, medical supplies, and other non-lethal assistance.”
At least according to reports, President Obama still refuses to provide the rebels with weapons directly (although several US allies are doing that dirty work for him). But many in Washington are pushing hard for directly sending weapons: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) told an audience at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy this week that the US should be sending ammunition. Additionally, a top Democrat in the House, Eliot Engel (D-NY), is planning to introduce legislation “to allow the president to arm the rebels,” he explained on ABC’s This Week.
I’ve written ad nauseum about what a bad idea increasing aid to the Syrian rebels is. First of all, neither Washington nor its allies have any way to control where the aid goes once it’s in Syria, despite the constant talk of a “vetting process” aimed at funneling support to moderate elements of the rebels and keeping it away from extremist elements that are aligned with al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.
In October, The New York Times published an article confirming that “Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists,” despite the fact that those weapons were being sent with US approval and coordination.
Secondly, the fact that this conflict has essentially been a proxy war for outside powers from the beginning is part of why it has been so intractable and bloody. Upping the ante on that will just continue to make the problem worse.
And then there is the question of blowback: aiding Sunni extremists trying to topple the Assad regime should trigger bad memories of aiding other proxies to serve our geo-political interests in Afghanistan during the 1980s. That classic case of blowback could seem slight compared to what could potentially happen in Syria.
Add to this the moral qualms we should have about aiding unaccountable rebel fighters, many of whom have committed war crimes and you have a robust combination of moral and strategic reasons not to side with Syria’s rebels.
But there is another critical strategic and moral reason not to further meddle: even if the US and its allies manage to bolster the rebels enough to topple the Assad regime, the war doesn’t end there. Daniel Trombly raises the question of the current splits in the disparate Syrian rebel opposition and how those will be exacerbated in a post-Assad scramble for power in Syria. Our involvement would eventually pit rebel group against rebel group and these are sufficient ingredients for an ongoing civil war even if Assad were out of the picture.
In Libya, the government let extremist organizations with anti-Western tendencies tear apart shrines, Western graveyards, and attack diplomats almost without consequence, despite NATO’s direct intervention to help topple Gaddafi. In Syria, where extremist groups are even better organized and armed relative to their secular and mainstream Islamist counterpart, escalating conflict with jihadists and opening a second stage to the Syrian civil war is even more dangerous. Western support for secularists and amenable Islamists will not cow jihadists into disarming. As Jihadica points out, posters on Shumukh al Islam are already asserting that what happens after the fall of the regime is of even greater concern than the war against the regime itself.
Let’s be clear of what the U.S. would need the secularists and Islamists to undertake to stamp out the jihadists in Syria. Not simply unite, not simply win, but maintain the motive and capability to fight and kill their one-time partners once they have finished with the regime. This is not a mere competition for influence, it will be war.
Extremist groups still operate freely in Libya (you know, the last country Washington “liberated”). And in Iraq, as Trombly points out, Sunni jihadists that were never there prior to the US war are still “raising hell” and destabilizing the country despite exorbitant amounts of US aid, weapons, and training to the government and its security forces.
None of the administration officials, members of Congress, or mindless media pundits arguing for greater intervention in Syria will dare to look this far beyond the horizon. Their shortsightedness is appallingly irresponsible.
Advocates for intervention like John McCain always ask how much bloodshed we’re willing to witness before we “do something” about Syria. I wonder how much more bloodshed and suffering McCain will tolerate once Syria’s stability, and their fighting force, becomes solely Washington’s responsibility.