The Perils of Arming Syria's 'Freedom Fighters'

05/10/2013 12:25 pm 12:25:00 | Updated Jul 10, 2013

After sacrificing over 6,700 troops and spending over $2 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan to rid the world of Al Qaeda, the U.S. is seriously considering arming these very same elements to effect regime change in Syria. The same political leaders who want to give the death penalty to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are beating the drum to give shoulder-fired missiles to like-minded jihadists bent on toppling Assad's apostate government. Although most foreign policy realists fully embrace "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" doctrine, Obama's Syria policy is in jeopardy of pushing the bounds of cynicism to entirely new levels.

A number of major mainstream media outlets have persistently called on the administration to arm the rebels, such as the editorial board of The Washington Post and senior op-ed columnists from The New York Times, including former executive editor Bill Keller. It is interesting to reflect on how many of these same media outlets excoriated George W. Bush for the invasion of Iraq (albeit they were against the war after they were for it). Should the U.S. decide to heed their counsel one wonders what the editorials will look like a few years from now when the U.S. finds itself in yet another Middle East quagmire.

Proponents of military intervention like Senator John McCain have claimed that the U.S. can divert these resources to more savory characters. On CNN last week he professed his belief that the U.S. could organize, train and equip a formidable opposition force while ensuring we "get the weapons to the right people." Yet in the same breath McCain admitted that members of the extremist al-Nusra front were "the bravest and the most effective" fighters.

The al-Nusra front, it bears underlining, is basically the reincarnation of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). McCain also mentioned that on the ground there are about 100,000 opposition troops, 60,000 of which belong to said radical outfit. According to Foreign Policy the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the largest and most internationally recognized opposition group, has recently been losing fighters at a rapid pace to radical Islamist factions.

McCain failed to mention that the CIA was already on the ground trying to divert weaponry to moderate elements within the opposition while steering them away from Islamist groups. Given the expanding dominance of the extremist groups one wonders if this approach has borne much fruit. According to the The New York Times the CIA also aimed to persuade Saudi and Qatari donors "to withhold portable antiaircraft missiles that might be used in future terrorist attacks on civilian aircraft."

A good rule of thumb. And one we should weigh heavily before trying to wade through a network of 1,000 militias in search of the good guys as we further militarize the conflict. Vetting those groups to determine how to distribute arms would be a complex task given that the opposition is fractured and operates with little central coordination or leadership. Even if the U.S. does provide arms directly to the rebels it might not tip the balance considering Iran and Russia will likely increase weapons shipments to Syrian government forces. And even if the U.S. could identify the "good guys" there are no guarantees they would remain so, because allegiances are transitory. As Rosa Brooks writes: "Political loyalty is fleeting, but weapons, like diamonds, are forever."

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who is quite the expert on jihadist blowback, believes arming the rebels is not only a bad idea, he contends it will only make the situation worse. Brzezinski was former President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor and the architect of the CIA operation that funded the Afghan mujahidin. The most extreme of these holy warriors evolved into a group known as the Taliban which helped establish a jihadist factory which helped Al Qaeda hatch the 9/11 scheme. Brzezinski argues that U.S. involvement would boost the extremists' narrative that a de facto American-Israeli-Saudi alliance has been formed to fight a Syria-Iran-Hezbollah bloc in a proxy war that could destabilize the entire region.

Syria expert Joshua Landis contends that the conflict has already taken on the contours of the Iraq war and the ethnosectrian divide in Syria runs deeper and is much more complex. Landis is convinced that the ethnic civil war will never be resolved by outside powers.

And for those who like to point to Libya as a model consider how the weapons flooded the black market and fell into the hands of extremists who helped destabilize Mali, forcing the French to intervene. Not to mention, months after Gaddafi's demise the country was still plagued by internecine warfare because the transitional government was unable to disarm hundreds of rival militia groups.

What seems to be lacking the most is an explicit political objective achievable in a time period and at a cost that is domestically palatable. Injecting countless weapons into this imbroglio will not alter the underlying political dynamics and may serve to prolong it. The overwhelming desire to prevent further bloodshed in Syria is an understandable and naturally human emotion. Peter Singer's analogy comes to mind in which he likens the moral failure of not providing foreign aid to starving countries to not rescuing a drowning child. Then again, if one cannot swim one should resist the temptation to leap in for fear of exacerbating the situation.