Arming Syrian Rebels: A Scary Prospect

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.

41 comments on this post.
  1. bmiller:

    “And that’s the last thing we should want.”

    Who is this “we” of whom you speak. The United States spent a trillion dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That was mighty profitable, Ed!

    The “we” who matter certainly are slobbering over this funding…and the future profitable war crimes which may result. Disaster Capitalism makes plenty of money for the well-connected and the shameless.

  2. theschwa:

    It will be fine. Obama made every rebel pinky-swear to never use these weapons against Americans or our allies.

  3. Raging Bee:

    I thought Assad and his supporters were Alawite. Are they a subset of Shiites in Syria? Not that that makes any of this any better for anyone…

  4. sivivolk:

    Alawites are a minority denomination of Shiites, and fairly despised by majority Sunni groups. It’s fairly important to understanding the conflict, from what I understand, but not the only factor.

  5. slc1:

    The problem here is that all the alternatives are bad. To do nothing risks giving Iran and Hizbollah a victory. Arming the rebels risks future escalation if the arms aren’t sufficient or Iran and Hizbollah get even more involved. Then what? A no-fly zone that Obama, supported by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dempsey, has opposed. Direct military intervention with ground troops? Strategic bombing of targets in Syria? Fifteen megaton bombs on Aleppo and Damascus?

    The problem here, as in most of the Middle East, is Iran. Without the support of Iran and their wholly owned subsidiary Hizbollah, Assad would have been given the bum’s rush a year ago.

    What’s really responsible for recent regime gains in Syria is the dispatch of thousands of Hizbollah fighters. The regular Syrian army, which is mostly Sunni, is unreliable and has no incentive to fight against the mostly Sunni rebels. The opposite is true of the Hizbollah reinforcements who are highly motivated. It should be noted that they gave a good account of themselves even against heavily armed elite Israeli units in the Lebanese invasion some years ago. If elite heavily armed elite Israeli units had difficulty with them, what chance do semi-trained lightly armed irregular troops in the Syrian rebel forces have?

  6. slc1:

    Re Raging Bee @ #3

    The Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

  7. trucreep:

    @3 + 4 + 6

    Ahhh, I was wondering about that too, as I always heard Assad described as Alawite.

    Regarding slc1 @5;

    Yeah, we have definitely found ourselves in a situation with no good solutions…What this seems like is more of just wanting to continue the conflict and not let Assad keep the momentum going, so that things are more even at the negotiation table.

    I mean, we’ve known for awhile that BOTH sides had used chemical weapons, and I don’t think it’d be that surprising to learn that we’ve been supplying the rebels with some sort of combat equipment for awhile now.

  8. Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc:

    This’ll end well, especially with Russia arming the government. More weapons to go around!

  9. slc1:

    Re trucreep @ #7

    As I have been arguing for some time over at Singham’s blog, this entire brouhaha over chemical weapons use is a red herring. The real game changer is the intervention of Hizbollah highly motivated shock troops. That’s why the regime is now on the ascendancy. Obama made a major boo boo in making an issue over chemical weapons and painted himself into a corner. Right now, General Dempsey is the only one providing him with negative information. With the reinforcement by Hizbollah, Assad no longer has to use them.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-06-18/pentagon-shoots-down-kerry-s-syria-airstrike-plan.html

  10. doublereed:

    Have we done something similar in other countries with positive results? You mentioned Vietnam and Afghanistan, but obviously there are other examples. Haven’t other times been more successful?

  11. fifthdentist:

    Grenada turned out pretty well, doublereed. At least for us.
    Anyone else remember any others that weren’t complete shitholes for U.S. service members and taxpayers?

  12. Larry:

    Supplying arms to one side in a middle eastern throw-down?

    I don’t see what could possibly go wrong.

  13. Geds:

    fifthdentist @11: Anyone else remember any others that weren’t complete shitholes for U.S. service members and taxpayers?

    Does Lend-Lease count? I mean, that worked pretty well…

    Actually, now that I think about it, Lend-Lease was successful and because it was successful we probably decided that we could keep doing it. But as with so many other things context matters and that particular context was unique. Russia wasn’t exactly a motley collection of irregulars facing down an empire on a shoestring. They didn’t have a lot, but they had infrastructure, a cohesive leadership, and the two best generals in history: General Winter and General Mud. Most importantly there was a general “we all hate the Nazis and they’re coming to get us” mentality that simply wasn’t in play in Vietnam and won’t be in play in Syria. Civil Wars are messy and getting materially involved is almost always a lose-lose proposition for an outside power.

  14. slc1:

    Re Geds @ #13

    They also had the incompetent Frankenberger calling the shots on the other side who cavalierly dismissed his best general, Heinz Guderian when the latter had the temerity to disagree with him on strategy.

  15. intergalacticmedium:

    I just find it upsetting that a humanitarian fight for democracy against a murderous tyrant has been muddied to such a degree, it is important to remember that they were marching peacefully on the streets before being strafed with snipers and helicopter gunships. That is has quasi merged into a standard and poisonous ethnic and proxy conflict really upsets me.

  16. bmiller:

    intergalactic:

    One could argue that the “capture” of peaceful revolutions by reactionary or violent or ethnic supremacist forces is more common than successful revolutions which lead to stability and “democracy”.

    More of a reason for outsiders to stay the hell out? Especially outsiders despised by most participants and with bloody hands themselves.

    Not a happy situation.

  17. EnlightenmentLiberal:

    @intergalacticmedium
    Indeed. Would it have maybe ended better for us and the “good guys” in Syria if we did something years earlier? Now it’s not necessarily a fight against an unjust dictator as intergalacticmedium says.

    The part that makes this impossible, as Ed noted, is that the international community is split. Iran, Russia, and China AFAIK don’t want outside interference for their own reasons. Otherwise, in my extremely naive opinion, something good may have been done years ago, such as throwing Assad the hell out. What can we really do when Iran is sending in troops more or less, and Russia is going to arm them too?

    Why isn’t the US playing up this aspect? We could claim the moral high ground. Then again, the US never claims the moral high ground in practice, and that move might also alienate the key players which we need to cooperate if we want to solve this, right? But how often has that ever worked with Russia, China, and Iran, all dictatorships to various degrees?

    Pardon my completely uninformed ignorant ranting / questions.

  18. iangould:

    “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.”

    Except you also did it in Kosovo and Libya without those same negative consequences.

  19. iangould:

    There’s a false assumption on the part of many that the objective here is to produce a military victory for the opposition.

    It isn’t.

    It’s to convince Iran and Russia that Assad can’t win and to cut their losses by forcing their Syrian allies to support a political transition.

  20. naturalcynic:

    Examples of American intervention supporting rebel who eventually won:: Look at the sordid history of Central America. We supported many thugs, despots and outright criminals in their rise to power against incumbents who wanted Uncle Sam to stay out.

  21. brucegee1962:

    As #18 pointed out, Libya and Kosovo are examples where our intervention worked out ok. The necessary prerequisites are an indigenous insurgency that is truly oppressed, that possesses considerable momentum, and that has international support. If we intervene strongly enough to tip the scales, then in the flying scrum that inevitably will follow the regime’s collapse, those elements that are likely to be sympathetic to US interests will have some extra leverage to come out on top.

    But that isn’t what we’re doing here. If we’d intervened, it should have been while the rebels were making solid gains and seemed to be on a roll, not now after Hezbolla has come in and flipped the table. And as my daddy used to say, if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing right — at minimum, you’d need a no-fly zone, not a few pansy-ass weapons shipments. So it looks like what will happen is that as the rebels go down to defeat, they drag our credibility down with us, and make an Iran win look even bigger in the region. So I don’t understand our policy at all.

  22. Marcus Ranum:

    What’s particularly horribly cynical is the way Obama is trying to milk this issue as if he’s waffling, when the CIA has been providing weapons to the rebels (as well as battlefield intelligence) since shortly after the rebellion began. CIA has been funnelling huge amounts of Saudi-purchased weapons from eastern europe in through Turkey and this has been adequately documented for more than a year! So what decision to arm the rebels hasn’t already been taken? The real decision, typically of the administration, was made in secret with no review.

    If an establishment mouthpiece like the NYT is willing to print about it that means that it’s been going on forever and is not a scoop, or some hollywood bigwig is planning to do a shitty movie about it. Perhaps it’ll feature an actor portraying Obama agonizing over the decision, and then maybe thinking it’s better to not leak it until after the election.

    Oct 2012 New York Times
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/15/world/middleeast/jihadists-receiving-most-arms-sent-to-syrian-rebels.html?pagewanted=all
    March 2013 New York Times
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/25/world/middleeast/arms-airlift-to-syrian-rebels-expands-with-cia-aid.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

  23. Marcus Ranum:

    slc1 writes:
    Fifteen megaton bombs on Aleppo and Damascus?

    Ah, the genocidaire speaks. You like that solution? A “final solution” perhaps?

  24. iangould:

    1. Alawites are an “offshoot” of Twelver Shia like Mormons are an “offshoot” of Catholicism.

    2. The Assad regime is Baathist. While the Assad family are historically Alawite, Baathists are aggressively secularist and mostly atheists.

    3. The Alawites make up, maybe, 10% of the Syrian population. Assad’s power base isn’t exclusively or primarily Alawite, if it were the war would have been over a year or more ago. Assad leads a coalition primarily made up of the three principal religious minorities in Syria, the Shia, the Alawites and the Christians. Collectively these groups make up ca. 35-40% of the Syrian population. Complicating matters further he enjoys the support of a significant minority of Sunnis and Kurds. Conversely, significant minorities of the Alawite, Shia and christian communities support the Opposition.

    4 Baathism is a form pan-arab socialism heavily influenced by Ataturk and also by Fascism and National Socialism. A key element of Baathism is subsuming differences between different subgroups of arabs. That’s why it has historically been supported by minorities who see it as their best opportunity of getting equal treatment from larger groups. That’s why, Iraq Baathists were primarily Sunni, why Syrian Baathists are primarily Shia and Alawite and why Lebanese Baathists are frequently Christian. The French and British pursued a policy of divide and conquer and recruited their local military largely from those same minorities. Everywhere that Baathism has succeeded in achieving power, they’ve doen so through coups.

    5. There’s precious little ideological common ground between Iran and the Assad regime. The Iranians support Syria largely because they need Syria to prop up Hezbollah and they need Hezbollah and Syria to present a retaliatory threat against any US or Israeli attack. fro them, it’s an essentially defensive deterrent.

  25. laurentweppe:

    it is important to remember that they were marching peacefully on the streets before being strafed with snipers and helicopter gunships

    It is also important to remember that the armed rebellion was started by syrian soldiers who turned against the regime because it ordered them to gun down civilians.

    ***

    Except you also did it in Kosovo and Libya without those same negative consequences.

    Well, Kosovo is a failed mafia-state and Libya is still too recent to really be out of the fire. The important thing is that since Milosevic wanted to expel albanian-speaking Kosovars at gunpoint and Kadhafi pretty much publicly vowed to slaughter his people into submission; even factoring the negative consequences ousting them ended up being the better option, whereas the death toll of the Vietnam and Iraq wars was way too high to justify replacing a dictator with an authoritarian sectocracy and giving a “pro-western” dictatorship a few years of reprieve before its evental demise against a coco dictatorship.

  26. anubisprime:

    Seems that if the West had wanted their preferred version of the ‘Good guys’ to win this spat they should have pulled fingers out of asses along time ago…far to little far to late now…the rod has been made and backs are being measured.

    The rebels are in a situation where any help would have been appreciated a couple of years back, seems Al-Qaeda arrived like the cavalry for the government and Assad is cock-a-hoop and the revels are relegated to using any psychotic cretin with a lust for blood and an appetite for fresh human heart!

    This is a rather nasty little boil that will no doubt burst with toxic puss on the West.

    A proxy war with Russia might be every gud’ ol’ bhoys’ dream in the Pentagon, but the die is set, and this situation will insure that yet another source of rabid sharia equipped numbfucks will take their rabid hatred’s out on the West because once again the West were to slow to pompous and far to cowardly to face up to each other in the UN…(an increasingly rather pointless institution) and in the process deserted a rebel uprising that if support had been forthcoming could have been more amenable to Western ambitions in the aftermath…now because of procrastination and dithering the West has insured that whoever finally triumphs will hate the West with a passion.

    Well done that tactic…the war on terror will escalate, maybe that was the game plan, to many Western governments seem to be using the situation as a clandestine excuse to spy on their own.
    ‘Big Brother’ was a warning, seems that some insecure paranoid and dumb folk read Orwell and decided that was their wet dream incarnate! …and went into politics to circle jerk.

  27. Marcus Ranum:

    PS @slc1: since you appear to think advocating use of nuclear weapons on civilians is edgy or cute, or something, please at least get your facts right: there aren’t any 15mt devices currently in anyone’s arsenal. Most nukes are in the 200kt-400kt range, which is quite sufficient. A W87 (300kt) device is 15 times as powerful as what was dropped on Hiroshima.

    The power of a 15mt H-bomb, such as Ivy Mike, is unimaginable and it’s dredging extra deep in the cess-pit of awfulness to publicly advocate such insane overkill against nonmilitary targets. In case you don’t understand – the core fireball of a 15mt device is nearly 2km across.

    I understand that you seem to relish your role as strutting little monster, but, seriously, you don’t need to go to such lengths to be horrible. That, too, is overkill. You already disgust us enough.

  28. CaitieCat:

    In addition to laurentweppe’s mention of Kosovo hardly being a superb example of outside intervention, Libya has not gone especially well. After the regime went down, many of the Tuaregs took the weapons they’d been supplied with and went to Mali, which is now in the process of collapse due to the internal fighting that escalated enormously once the arms fed into Libya fed back out again. Of course, the folks at the US’ AFRICOM don’t mind that, because a failed state in Africa is another chance to extent the Imperial Legionary Base Network.

    Hey, maybe they’ll even build some good, lasting roads and aqueducts. Even the Romans weren’t all bad. But Empires? Empires don’t do the world any favours by their existence.

    Contrary to the NRA’s beliefs, more guns doesn’t actually solve much. It’s like the lady who swallowed the spider to catch the fly: I guess she’ll die.

  29. dingojack:

    “Empires don’t do the world any favours by their existence.”.

    What no favours at all? No infrastructure improvement? No increased trade? No improved standards of living? No increased artistic and scientific achievements?

    Really?

    Dingo

  30. CaitieCat:

    Are you suggesting that the Iraqis or Afghanis are better off because the empire came for a visit? Cause I’ve got to say, I doubt they’d agree. The problem with empires is that they don’t go in to do favours for the people who live there. They go in to do their own business, to support their own goals, and if those happen not to coincide with the people who were already there, well then the empire sets about “fixing” that, usually by removing as many of them from the rolls of the living as they can figure out a way to get away with.

    So no. I’m not seeing much advantage to anyone but the empreror and his buddies, no.

  31. slc1:

    Re Iangould @ #24

    As usual, the frog speaks knowledgeably from a vast fund of ignorance. Now it is true that the Assad regime is largely secularist. However, so were the regimes of Stalin and Mao, proving that secularism is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for democratic government. I would also point out that the Shah of Iran, much demonized on this bog, was a secularist.

    Here an excerpt from the wiki article on Alawites.

    The Alawites, also known as Alawis (ʿAlawīyyah Arabic: علوية‎) are a prominent mystical religious group centred in Syria who follow a branch of the Twelver school of Shia Islam.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alawites

  32. slc1:

    Re Marcus Ranum @ #27

    It is true that the large H bombs were dismantled, I believe, around 2000 while the B52s, the only US delivery system (the Russian Bison is also capable, it dropped the TSAR bomb) capable of delivering such a weapon were withdrawn from SAC and all of them were converted to carpet bombing (actually, as I understand it, only a few were still assigned to SAC at that time).

  33. slc1:

    Re Marcus Ranum @ #27

    Hit submit comment too soon.

    A few of the remaining B52′s could be reconfigured to their original condition and the large H bombs that they were designed to deliver could be reconstituted. I don’t think it would take more then 6 months to accomplish this.

  34. slc1:

    Re Marcus Ranum @ #27

    Actually, I don’t advocate anything relative to Syria. It’s a hopeless mess and all the alternatives are terrible.

  35. dingojack:

    CattleCat – did you not see the statement (of yours) I quoted?
    Care to revise that statement into something a little less broad?
    Dingo

  36. CaitieCat:

    Not particularly, no. Empires build infrastructure to suit the empire’s needs, not as a “favour” to the inhabitants. They don’t give a rat’s ass what the inhabitants want. They weren’t blasting roads through Vietnamese jungle, or dropping tonnes and tonnes of Agent Orange to defoliate the country, to help the Vietnamese, for instance. The Empire serves the Empire, and nothing but the Empire.

    So, no thanks, don’t feel any need to adjust. You don’t like it, then I’m afraid you’re going to just have to lump it. :)

  37. dingojack:

    CattleCat – you really need to read some history.
    A lot of other stuff happened outside of Vietnam (and before the end of the Second World War), perhaps your copy of ‘The Don Williams Big Book of Conspiracy” might not be the most reliable source of information. ;)
    Dingo

  38. CaitieCat:

    LOL, when all else fails, go for the ad hominem. Thanks for a good laugh, mate, but i think I’m done helping your JAQ. Have a nice day.

  39. bmiller:

    I tend to agree with Caitie Cat. Trade is great, but at what cost? Especially if the trade routes set up by empires are based on slavery and exploitation of natural resources. For a modern example, how much benefit are the Niger Delta people deriving from the oil industry? Not very much.

  40. iangould:

    “As usual, the frog speaks knowledgeably from a vast fund of ignorance. Now it is true that the Assad regime is largely secularist. However, so were the regimes of Stalin and Mao, proving that secularism is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for democratic government.”

    Show me where I suggested that the Assad government was even vaguely democratic.

    As for the Alawi being just a branch of Twelver Shia: THey’rea syncretic cult which keeps a lot of their practises secret but those practises are known to include the drinking of wine and the veneration of icons – including paintings of Mohammed, Ali and Jesus.

  41. iangould:

    As for the idea that empires benefit their subjects via trade: when the first Portugese explorers reached Calcutta, they described it as “a city richer and more beautiful than any in Europe”. While they were impressed by the vast wealth of the rulers they were even more impressed by the wealth of the common people – including the total absence of beggars.

    Indian poverty is almost completely a product of imperial trade. The British made it illegal to produce a whole range of basic necessities in India including cloth, footwear and salt. They did so because, even after the Industrial Revolution British manufacturers couldn’t compete on price and quality with local Indian products.

    (They had a similar problem in China. The empire was going broke buying Chinese silk, porcelain and tea – and no British goods were successful in Chinese markets so they had to pay for them in silver. So they found a great new flavor that all the kids were just dying for – Opium!

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