Paul Pillar doesn’t think much of the administration’s plan to
waste spend $500 million on arming the “moderate” Syrian opposition:
One hears the argument that the presence of many nasty and immoderate people in the Syrian opposition is all the more reason to aid moderate groups, so that fighters will gravitate toward the moderate groups rather than the extreme ones. But if allegiance and political inclination can be transferred or bought this easily, this calls into question the validity of any “vetting.”
The flip side of this is that insurgent groups are very good at telling would-be patrons what the latter want to hear. If a group has to espouse certain views in order to get the arms and support it needs, it will pretend to believe whatever the patron requires, and then it will use the weapons it receives as it wishes for its own purposes. For their part, hawkish advocates of arming the opposition will whitewash the beliefs and background of any group that they consider to be “moderate” enough. We have seen how different advocates for supporting the KLA, rebels in Libya, and the MEK have bent over backwards over the years to deny obvious facts about these groups because they happen to have the “right” enemies and because acknowledging the truth about them would get in the way of justifying U.S. support. There is no reason to think the Syrian case is any different.
All of the calls to arm the opposition in Syria are based on the false belief that the U.S. has the ability to manipulate and direct the course of a foreign civil war, and that it is only because Washington has “failed” to insert itself aggressively enough that the war has turned out the way it has. Obama’s decision has the distinction of being guaranteed not to “work” on its own terms while also being harmful. Adding in a few more weapons into the Syrian civil war isn’t going to achieve anything except to help prolong the war and put off the day when a negotiated settlement can be reached. The more support that the U.S. and other outside governments provide to the opposition, the less inclined they will be to negotiate. Arming insurgents doesn’t give the U.S. much in the way of control or influence over them, but it does implicate the U.S. in whatever they do with the weapons and training provided to them.
Another major flaw is that the weapons provided to the “vetted” groups aren’t going to stay just with them. Lisa Lundquist explains:
At this point, it is not entirely clear which vetted elements of the Syrian opposition can be relied upon to keep the arms out of the hands of the jihadists groups who dominate the battlefield, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), and al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the Al Nusrah Front.
As The Long War Journal has documented over the past year at least, in numerous instances previous US efforts to equip ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels have been compromised by the frequent partnering of ‘moderate’ and Islamist forces, as well as by the sheer power of the Islamist forces themselves.
The problem is not only that “moderate” and Islamist groups will sometimes work together, but that we already know that U.S.-supplied weapons cannot be kept secure from other armed groups that wish to seize control of them. We have seen this in Syria, and we have more recently seen it in Iraq on a much larger scale. The developments of the last six months ought to have put an end to the idea of arming the Syrian opposition once and for all, but the administration has outdone itself in finding a Syria policy option that makes no sense, satisfies no one, and slowly pulls the U.S. into a conflict where Americans still have little or nothing at stake.