THE BLOG
09/17/2014 01:16 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

Arming Syrian 'Moderate' Fighters Emboldens Islamic State

AP

While the president has justified his plan to arm and train "moderate" Syrian armed groups on the grounds that it would counter the growth of the Islamic State, it will likely have the exact opposite effect. Further funding for "moderate" Syrian opposition groups will embolden IS and risk widening the brutal Syrian war.

The president has asked Congress to authorize $500 million to train and equip fighters with the Free Syrian Army, which is often described as the most moderate armed Syrian opposition group. The House is expected to vote on the request today, and the Senate may pass the legislation by the end of the week.

If Congress signs this check for the FSA, IS will help cash it. For years, IS has recruited former FSA fighters and seized weapons funneled to Iraq and Syria from the U.S. and other countries.

The line between the FSA and IS has always been blurry, and increasingly so. Scores of former FSA fighters have reportedly defected to join IS and other Islamic extremist groups. These shifting alliances are par for the course amongst Syria's fractious opposition, and collaboration between militia groups is common.

The family of Steven Sotloff, one of two American journalists executed by IS, have pointed to collaboration between the FSA and IS as abetting the murder of their son. A spokesperson for the Sotloff family reported that FSA members had sold Steven's location to IS. While the Obama administration and the FSA have denied these claims, there are numerous accounts of FSA fighters collaborating with IS on the battlefield.

Given the lack of a unified command structure, the FSA is more of a loosely affiliated band of militias rather than an entity organized enough to deserve the term "army." As Middle East expert Mark Lynch has noted, "the FSA was always more fiction than reality, with a structure on paper masking the reality of highly localized and fragmented fighting groups on the ground."

That is not to say that IS and FSA are the one in the same. The power of IS largely comes from its ability to recruit supporters from the FSA and other so-called moderate opposition groups. The growth of IS depends on convincing disenfranchised Sunnis in Iraq and Syria that IS is not only the most effective force to counter the Assad and Iraqi governments, but that they are also the most powerful resistance to U.S. military intervention.

It is worth remembering that IS owes its existence to conditions created by U.S. military intervention in Iraq and the sectarian violence that it unleashed. Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, neither IS nor al Qaeda existed in Iraq.

IS feeds on desperation and resentment to both U.S. direct military intervention and indirect U.S. military intervention, such as U.S. backing for the Iraqi government and its security forces. Neither arming the FSA nor bombing IS targets in Syria will stop IS. Every additional US bomb and check to the FSA is a recruiting bonanza for IS.

Before members of Congress cast a vote to throw millions at the FSA, they should reflect on the lessons of U.S. support for the mujahideen in the 1980s. Arming the mujahideen was seen then as the "least bad option." Yet such short-sighted thinking helped pave the way for the rise of the Taliban and allowed a safe harbor for al Qaeda to plot the 9/11 attacks.

Rather than repeating the mistakes of the past, the U.S. should focus on undercutting IS's ability to access weapons and fighters. This will require working with the United Nations and Gulf allies to cut oil exports and other sources of revenue to IS. Washington can help stop IS from expanding its weapons arsenal by engaging regional stakeholders to impose a comprehensive arms embargo on Iraq and Syria.

Ultimately, the only way to prevent IS from gaining new recruits is to forge a political solution that ends the bloodletting in Iraq and Syria and addresses the grievances of marginalized Sunni communities in both countries. Eventually, a political settlement will end the horrific violence raging in Iraq and Syria. U.S. arming and training of the so-called moderate Syrian opposition will only delay the day that political settlement is reached.

Urge your member of Congress to oppose sending arms to the Syrian rebels by calling 1-855-68-NO WAR

Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson (ret.) is distinguished adjunct professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary. Previously, during a 31-year career in the US army, served as chief of staff to US Secretary of State Colin Powell.