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Syrian and American Illusions

Ross Douthat rightly pours cold water on the fantasy that arming and training a few thousand rebels in Syria will have the desired effect in combating ISIS:

If our failure to build an army capable of stabilizing Iraq after our departure looks like a pure tragedy, then the arm-the-rebels gambit in Syria has more than a whiff of farce. But really it’s a studied evasion, a way for this administration to pretend that we don’t face a set of deeply unpleasant options in our quest to contain or crush the caliphate.

It’s also the sort of useless gesture that’s designed to create the illusion of broad support for a policy that no one believes will achieve anything significant. As we saw last week, “arming the rebels” is one Syria policy that can winmajorities in both houses despite the fact that this option has long been overwhelmingly unpopular with the American public and with large majorities of people in every country in the surrounding region. There’s no question that arming rebels is supposed to divert attention from the glaring flaw that the administration has set an unrealistic, maximalist goal (“destroying” ISIS) and proposed minimalist measures to reach it, but beyond that it remains what Marc Lynch has called “a classic bureaucratic “Option C,” driven by a desire to be seen as doing something while understanding that there was no American appetite at all for more direct intervention.”

No one seriously thinks that arming and training a few thousand rebels will make much of a difference or do much good, but it is the relatively risk-free option (for Americans) that provides a temporary sop to insatiable hawks while also providing cover for fence-sitters that want to be considered “serious” on foreign policy without having to take big political risks by backing more aggressive measures. Finally, many members of Congress endorsed this policy just so that they could get it off the agenda before the elections, so majority support in Congress for arming Syrian rebels may be shown to be illusory much sooner than we might have guessed.

In some ways, pushing for arming Syrian rebels has a lot in common with the push to send arms to Ukraine: it signals “toughness,” and no one truly expects it to accomplish anything, but the point is to be seen making the effort. It is a way to “take a stand,” albeit a stupid one, and few members of Congress have been penalized because they joined a big majority to vote for something wasteful and ill-considered. The bigger problem with these sorts of useless half-measures is that they will inevitably fail to reach their objectives, because there was never a chance that they were able to reach them, and then we will hear demands for increasing support until eventually the U.S. has to give up on its nominal proxies or commit its own forces to a prolonged conflict.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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