Grasping at Straws for War in Syria: *Non*-Intervention Will Cause Resentment?

The Washington Post published a remarkable piece on the front page yesterday on Syria. It was remarkable for the sheer ingenuity with which it developed a new and predictably awful reason for a broader US military intervention there. The reporter, Liz Sly, interviewed some rebel fighters and some DC hawks who argued that America’s failure to launch a war on behalf of the Free Syrian Army will stoke resentment and anti-American hatred among Syrians.

“America will pay a price for this,” Yasser Abu Ali, a spokesman for one of the Free Syrian Army battalions told the Post. “America is going to lose the friendship of Syrians, and no one will trust them anymore. Already we don’t trust them at all.”

I’m sorry, this simply doesn’t cut it. One of the most basic truisms of US foreign policy in the modern context is that incessant American intervention in the Arab world causes hatred and resentment. What the Post’s article is trying to do is overturn this elemental fact of consistently recorded Arab public opinion. US interventionism has been the cause of rivers of bloodshed in the recent history of the Middle East – and this has been the cause of anti-American sentiment, not to mention the propping up of dictators that abuse and enslave populations for decades. Intervening militarily in Syria is likely to worsen the conflict and to instigate an even more violent sectarian conflict.

Furthermore, asking a few rebel fighters about the collective opinions of almost 21 million Syrians is not going to get you very far. The rebels still make up a fraction of the Syrian population and, by most accounts, the vast majority of ordinary Syrians do not support the rebels, their overthrow of Assad, or their rise to power.

If Washington continues on its current path, “ultimately the political entity that comes to power is not going to be in U.S. interests,” [said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute of Near East Affairs]. “A secular and democratic Syria is what we’re going to lose big-time.”

The ideological make-up of the Syrian rebels is decidedly not secular and democratic, so I’m not sure where Tabler gets off. Many of the 300 or so disparate rebel battalions are very religious Sunnis who have been committing reprisal attacks against Shiites and Christians. Up to a quarter, according to US intelligence (probably a low-ball estimate), are fighting under the banner of al-Qaeda. The rebels are also receiving weapons and support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, not exactly bastions of secularism and democracy but surely two countries that will have a strong influence on any future Free Syrian Army.

The argument for intervention from the Washington Post disregards recent history. Take Afghanistan, where the US supported a similar set of jihadist freedom fighters in the 1980s, only to have them later come to power as one of the most terrible and backward religious fundamentalist ruling clans in the world. They later hosted al-Qaeda preceding the 9/11 attacks. As Micah Zenko, of the Council on Foreign Relations, responded to the Post’s type of argument:

The United States provided battlefield intelligence, money, and weapons and ammunition (up to 65,000 tons a year by 1987) to the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s, some of whom later became members the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Not surprisingly, once the Taliban came to power it was not willingly directed by the United States, refusing repeated requests by the Clinton administration to kick out Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda leadership. In Rwanda, the United States didn’t provide arms or intervene militarily during the genocide in 1994, yet somehow Paul Kagame’s government finds itself able to accept $200M in U.S. foreign assistance every year. Likewise, the future leaders of Syria will act in their own national interests with whoever it needs to, regardless of who is arming or funding the revolution today.

And here’s Paul Pillar, former CIA Mid-East analyst, on the supposed gratitude-inducing effects of US interventionism:

U.S. support and involvement in Afghanistan do underlie much of what bedevils that country and the United States today. U.S. lethal support gave an important boost to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and it was even more important in developing into an effective fighting force the Haqqani group—which is now so much of an antagonist to the United States that it is the subject of Congressional resolutions urging the secretary of state to designate it formally as a foreign terrorist organization. Some gratitude.

Then there was the war in Iraq, sold partly on the idea that the United States would be lovingly showered with gratitude from Iraqis welcoming Americans as liberators. The war did not, of course, turn out anything like that. Even when events in Iraq have enjoyed an uptick or two, Iraqis have been slow to credit the United States for anything that has gone well and persistent in blaming the United States for much of what is still not going well.

And Daniel Larison contrasted the Post’s claims with a citation from the New York Times “on the growing anti-Americanism among secular Syrians and Syria’s religious minorities, who believe the U.S. is doing far too much for the opposition already”:

The seeming indifference of the international community to the worsening condition of Syria’s religious minorities — and the near total absence of censure of the opposition forces by the Western governments arrayed against Assad — is breeding a bitter anti-Americanism among many secular Syrians who see the United States aligning itself with Saudi Arabia, the fount of Wahhabism, against the Arab world’s most resolutely secular state.