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The Folly of Arming the Syrian Opposition

Former Ambassador Robert Ford said this in an interview earlier this week about arming the “moderate” opposition in Syria (via Scoblete):

To be very frank, we have plenty of information on reliable groups [bold mine-DL], and we have long had that. It is a question of whether or not there’s will to actually help people whose agenda is compatible with our national security interests [bold mine-DL], and then to make a decision and push forward.

Ford unintentionally draws attention to some of the main reasons why it has never made sense to arm any part of the Syrian opposition. First, there is no such thing as a truly “reliable” group in these conflicts. No matter how agreeable a group’s stated agenda and ideology may appear, the U.S. gains no meaningful influence and control over the groups that it arms, and it cannot rely on these groups to do anything except pursue their own goals. In the short term, that may seem expedient because they claim to have similar goals, but that guarantees nothing later on. The main problem isn’t that the U.S. lacks information about the groups requesting weapons, though it might, but that it doesn’t know what will happen if it succeeds in promoting regime change by proxy.

It is especially irresponsible to arm factions in foreign civil wars, because there is a decent chance that weapons provided by the U.S. can be used to commit atrocities or will be lost to other groups that the U.S. absolutely doesn’t want to provide with advanced weapons. Like most other hawks, Syria hawks usually don’t take seriously the possibility that things can go wrong. If the U.S. had done as Ford wanted, it would then have been expected to do even more to support the opposition once sending arms proved to be inadequate. We can expect the same Syria hawks that have assured us that this wouldn’t be necessary to come back to tell us that more aggressive U.S. action is imperative.

Another main objection to arming any part of the Syrian opposition is that it is not at all obvious that it is compatible with “our national security interests” to do so. How are U.S. interests actually served by encouraging regime collapse in Syria? We are already seeing the evils of partial regime collapse. There is no reason to think that contributing to its complete breakdown would do anything except create even more refugees and more civilian casualties. That won’t make the U.S. or any of Syria’s neighbors more secure, but will do just the opposite.

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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