Late last week, President Obama made an abrupt policy shift and decided to start sending arms to the rebels in Syria fighting against Bashar al-Assad. He did so after Bill Clinton publicly called him out and after the CIA determined, supposedly definitively, that Assad had used chemical weapons against the rebels. I’m not too happy about the whole situation, though I doubt Obama is either.
Here are some reasons why. First, because we are now essentially choosing sides in the ancient battle between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, currently being played out in the Syrian civil war. Assad is Shiite and is backed by the Shiite government of Iran and the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah, who are fighting against the rebels on his behalf. The rebels are Sunni and, though there are many different groups with different affiliations, at least some of them are clearly aligned with Sunni Al Qaeda. Notice that this is the opposite of what we did in Iraq, where we backed Shiite rebels fighting against Saddam Hussein and the minority Sunni population that supported him.
Second, our history of giving this kind of limited support to a group of rebels isn’t exactly a story with many happy endings. We did the same thing in Vietnam, along with “military advisers,” and we ended up invading and killing 2-3 million people for no conceivable reason, doing enormous damage to this country as a result. We did it in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the weapons we gave them were later turned against us by the same Sunni thugs we’re now arming again. When we begin to meddle in this way, the result is often direct military action later. And that’s the last thing we should want.
As Marc Lynch explains in Foreign Policy:
On its own, the decision will have only a marginal impact on the Syrian war — the real risks lie in what steps might follow when it fails. The significant moves to arm the rebels began last year, with or without open American participation. Assad’s brutal campaign of military repression and savage slaughters and the foreign arming of various rebel groups has long since thoroughly militarized the conflict. The U.S. is modifying its public role in a proxy war in progress, providing more and different forms of support to certain rebel groups, rather than entering into something completely new.
The real problem with Obama’s announcement is that it shatters one of the primary psychological and political footholds in the grim effort to prevent the slide down the slippery slope to war. He may have chosen the arming option in order to block pressure for other, more direct moves, like a no-fly zone or an air campaign. But instead, as the immediate push for “robust intervention” makes obvious, the decision will only embolden the relentless campaign for more and deeper U.S. involvement in the war. The Syrian opposition’s spokesmen and advocates barely paused to say thank you before immediately beginning to push for more and heavier weapons, no-fly zones, air campaigns, and so on. The arming of the rebels may buy a few months, but when it fails to produce either victory or a breakthrough at the negotiating table the pressure to do more will build. Capitulating to the pressure this time will make it that much harder to resist in a few months when the push builds to escalate.
I don’t think anyone in the administration really has any great confidence that arming the rebels will end Syria’s civil war or work in any other meaningful way, though many likely feel that it’s worth trying something different after so many months of horrors and want to believe that this will work. Obviously, I am deeply skeptical. I hope I’m wrong, and that against the odds the new policy can make a difference, and help to resolve the Syrian catastrophe. But more likely it just drags the U.S. further down the road to another disastrous war — one which has just become harder to prevent.
I do understand the possible humanitarian motivation. What is going on in Syria is extremely brutal and horrifying. But I don’t see any way this ends well for us or for them. We’ve already seen this movie and we know how it likely ends.