08/13/2012 10:38 am ET Updated Oct 13, 2012

How U.S. Lost Bidding War for Syria's Rebels

Imagine the United States at an auction with some Gulf regimes. Up for bid is the future leadership of Syria, one of the most important states in the Middle East. The Gulf sugar daddies are raising the ante, yet at the same time clamoring for their soon-to-be-prizes to sound and act more Islamist, even Salafist. A few al Qaeda members have crept onto the bidding platform. The United States claims to be providing funds through back channels but no arms, and nothing lethal. But the auctioneer is not buying it, nor is anyone else. As a rebel spokesman recently told the Washington Post: "America will pay a price for this. America is going to lose the friendship of Syrians, and no one will trust them anymore. Already we don't trust them at all."

Indeed, there seems to be a kind of unstated outbidding process that goes among rebel groups for outside support. In Libya, we appeared to move in early enough to fill the security vacuum, in order to arm the rebels and eventually intervene with air power. We'll never know if the rebels there talked the liberal talk to secure our succor -- even as their unity, allegiance, and ability to fire a weapon forward instead of backward were famously called into question at the time -- but their recent successful election suggests that a liberal and democratic post-Qaddafi Libya is not improbable. Yet what if Gulf oil money had poured into Libya and provided the bulk of financial backing and arms for the rebels -- would they have leaned more Islamist? We'll never know. Political scientists pay attention to so-called preference falsification, whereby groups during times of social upheaval keep their private preferences quiet until it is advantageous to switch sides or allegiances -- a kind of cascade-like phenomenon. But this presents us with a paradox: We are unwilling to assist the rebels because they are increasingly Islamist, but they are increasingly Islamist because we are unwilling to assist them.

As a result, the rebels, rightfully, are increasingly resentful of Washington, even as U.S. officials claim to be providing covert -- though non-lethal -- support for their cause. This is not leading from behind -- it's cowering behind the crush of bad news. Nobody doubts that the rebel movement in Syria is an amorphous blob of Sunni activists and opportunists, some with Islamist leanings and some just fed up with Assad. There are foreign fighters with dubious allegiances, as well as plain criminals. We cling to this master narrative of Sunni rebels versus a state run by a heterodox Shiite sect, but we know that much of the violence has nothing to do with this cleavage -- it is more localized, stemming from more parochial and personalized disputes. Revenge and retribution will explain as much violence as sectarian divisions.

The United States may have already sealed its fate. The decision not to intervene more forcefully and earlier on in Syria will come back to haunt this administration. We had a golden opportunity to tip the future balance of power of the Middle East in our favor. But we were outbid by pro-Islamists in the Gulf.