In the face of withering criticism that his foreign policy has been one of retreat and withdrawal, President Obama announced that he would seek $500 million in aid to train and arm Syrian rebels fighting against the Assad regime.
While it certainly appears that American interests are on the defensive everywhere — in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in the Ukraine — the United States should not just throw cash at elements of the Syrian opposition in order not to look weak and to do something just for the sake of doing something.
We have seen this scenario before — all too many times in that region of the world — and with undesirable results. We seem to have the uncanny ability to support questionable armed groups, who don’t share our values of democracy and freedom, only to have that aid boomerang back against us.
In the 1980s, the CIA funneled arms and equipment to the mujahideen to aid them in their struggle against the occupying Soviet forces. After the Soviets left Afghanistan, the mujahideen began to fight among themselves using the American weapons given them to fight the Soviets. The group that emerged strongest from that struggle was the one led by Mohammed Omar, the founder of the Taliban. By most intelligence accounts, the Taliban was the group that gave Osama bin Laden a free hand to conduct his terrorist operations in Afghanistan. Supporting the mujahideen helped end the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, but led to the birth of a virulent movement that would ultimately bear some responsibility for 9/11.
Predicting that the mujahideen of the 1980s would morph into the Taliban of 9/11 may have been difficult, but we should have learned the lesson that not only do we have to know our enemy, but also our supposed friends.
So before sending arms to the rebels, the U.S. must make sure who these rebels really are, what they represent and what kind of a future they will bring to the Syrian people. The Syrian rebels are not one group. They run the gamut from secularists to Islamic extremists that even al-Qaida rejects as too extreme. Most of the Syrian rebels playing a prominent role in the fighting against Assad’s regime are Islamic extremists. Even if the arms are only funneled to the most secular groups, what safeguards are there that they won’t fall into the hands of the radical extremists, who constitute the majority of the rebels?
Yes, Bashar Assad has committed terrible atrocities, has likely unleashed chemical weapons against his opponents, and indiscriminately kills women and children with barrel bombs dropped on densely populated cities such as Aleppo. He will go down in history, along with his father, as a murderous butcher. But what does the opposition offer that will be a guaranteed improvement for the Syrian people and the region?
Not much. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have cited accounts of atrocities committed by Syrian rebels. The rebels have been accused of summary executions and torture. The Syrian rebel forces have possibly even used chemical weapons themselves. The leading Islamist factions in the Syrian opposition have made it no secret that they would impose Islamic law if they gain complete power. In areas where radical Islamic forces have gained control, Sharia law has already been enforced.
Well-intentioned but misguided intervention on the part of the U.S. could just escalate the conflict further. The tide has been turning against the rebels lately, with the help of massive Russian and Iranian aid, which is likely why the president wants to bolster the cause of the rebels. If the rebels start to mount a comeback, then the Russians and the Iranians will only step up their arms pipeline to Assad, creating a spiraling proxy war in the Middle East reminiscent of that of the Cold War. When the going gets too tough, too expensive, and loses popular support, will the U.S. leave behind yet another country littered with American arms and failed good intentions? Ever since Vietnam, American stamina for propping up questionable regimes has been short-lived.
It’s a good sign that the administration is attempting to win back some credibility with a decisive move regarding Syria, but all the credibility and more will be lost if Syria only becomes more destabilized and descends into a greater abyss of violence. The president has to clearly define his strategy in Syria — both short-term and long-term. He has repeatedly stated that Assad must go, but he also has to determine who will take his place.