In any given conflict, all sides are likely to engage in brutal and unsavory tactics to one degree or another. Even the United States was embarrassed by its torture of prisoners held in Abu Ghraib in Iraq. One need not endorse admittedly disturbing methods to recognize that as much as one would like to see a noble fight for liberty, the Syrian conflict is also a struggle for power. And when people are engaged in such a knock-down fight, they invariably do whatever it takes to win. To assume otherwise is naive Wilsonian idealism at work—and a howler.
The editorial and TNI’s response reminded me of a similar exchange from last year during the early weeks of the Libyan war. I said at the time:
For the rebels, this is an existential fight against a vastly superior enemy, and popular support for that enemy is evidently not as weak as their Western boosters would have liked to believe. That doesn’t excuse the rebels for anything they do to their detainees and suspected regime loyalists. Acknowledging this is to take seriously that supporting these rebels could lead to other atrocities. When liberal interventionists urged the U.S. to take sides in this conflict, they were urging the U.S. to lend support to a rebel force it couldn’t control and doesn’t understand.
All of this holds true for the situation in Syria, except that the danger of reprisals and atrocities against perceived and real regime supporters is probably even greater in Syria because of the conflict’s intensifying sectarian character. This gets to the heart of why “arm the rebels” is a far more dangerous option than many of its advocates allow. It is wrong to believe that providing arms to the Syrian opposition will discourage abuses or that providing weapons to armed rebels will put the U.S. in a position to dictate rebel conduct.
Arming rebels in Syria will mean providing one side in a civil war with a greater ability to inflict damage on the regime and its supporters. Indeed, the point of providing such arms is to impose higher costs on the regime and prolong the conflict. If one wants to argue for linking the U.S. to one side in an increasingly brutal civil war, there should be no illusions that “our” side will not engage in abuses and excesses or that the U.S. will be able to control what rebels do with these weapons once they have been delivered. Of course, the fact that both sides are engaging in such abuses might give American interventionists reason to think again about whether it makes sense to advocate deeper U.S. involvement.