The Facts Haven’t Changed: Arming the Syrian Rebels is Still a Terrible Idea

In Foreign Affairs, Michael Bröning makes an impressively weak case for directly arming the Syrian rebels. He acknowledges the unfortunate fact that aid and weapons from Arab Gulf states have “primarily reached the more extreme groups,” but claims that the new National Coalition Opposition, which President Obama and more than 90 countries have officially recognized, “changes the conflict’s parameters.” He argues that “Arming and financing the National Coalition could strengthen the more moderate opposition forces in Syria.”

…the facts on the ground have increasingly overrun the standard arguments against supporting anti-Assad forces, and the case for arming the rebels grows stronger by the month.

Critics of a more active support for the opposition have long bemoaned the lack of a coherent opposition body that could bring together the various political and military opponents of the regime. But now, the newly established Syrian National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which was founded with U.S. assistance in Qatar in November, has done just that.

Actually, it hasn’t. The Coalition is supposed to be made up of Syrian dissidents and opposition groups from across the spectrum. But it is largely another exile group without strong roots inside the country. There little evidence the Syrian people accept it. But there is strong evidence it has been vehemently rejected by the armed rebel groups fighting the Assad regime. And the fact that it was formed as a US initiative grants it even less legitimacy. After all, as Bröning readily admits, arming the rebels would be meant to “accelerate the end of the Assad regime” for the sake of “Syrian and Western interests” (a redundancy to imperialists).

Bröning acknowledges the aid and weapons already being sent to Syria’s rebels by Arab Gulf states have largely gone to extremist jihadists, some of whom have ties to al-Qaeda. What he doesn’t say is that this occurred despite the CIA’s efforts to facilitate the delivery of these arms towards moderate groups. Going back at least six months, intelligence officials have been telling the press (Washington Post, Los Angeles Timesthat the truth is that the US had little control over who received the assistance.

Nor does Bröning explain what is to happen if and when the Assad regime does fall. He argues that fully committed Western support would make moderate elements of the Syrian opposition stronger than the extremists. That is unconvincing. But even if it were true, we’d still have a situation where rebel group was pitted against rebel group and an ongoing proxy war would be likely to result. Furthermore, all the rebels have proven capable of is fighting, not state building, social services, and post-conflict reconstruction. The opposition, despite the hopes and dreams of people like Bröning, is still very fractured and many of these groups would imitate the Libyan rebels and refuse to cede local control and, importantly, their weapons.

The overwhelming fact is that the interventionist policies in Syria are worsening the conflict. UN rights chief Navi Pillay has repeatedly condemned the continued flow of weapons from foreign powers to both sides in the Syrian conflict. “The ongoing provision of arms to the Syrian government and to its opponents feeds additional violence,” she said. “Any further militarization of the conflict must be avoided at all costs.”

And supporting rebel groups in civil wars has a terrible record throughout history. As usual, the rosy picture of the future painted by self-assured interventionists never materializes. A recent study out of Brandeis University concluded “the distillation of historical experience with civil war and insurgency, along with a sober reckoning of conditions on the ground in Syria, make clear” that arming the rebels is “likely to amplify the harm that it seeks to eliminate by prolonging a hurting stalemate.”

Update: To further illustrate sectarian and messy choosing one side over the other can get, today brings news of Syrian rebels battling with pro-Assad Palestinian groups.

Clashes between Syrian rebels and an armed Palestinian group loyal to President Bashar Assad raged inside a Damascus refugee camp Tuesday, as the Syrian military deployed tanks outside, activists said.

…as the civil war deepened, most Palestinians backed the rebels, while some groups — such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command — have been fighting on the government side.

Update II: Beyond the predictable risks and contradictions with getting even more involved in this fight, there is then the practical issue (with heavy moral weight) of what I’ve previously called the fatal conceit of policymakers in Washington thinking they have the knowledge and ability to engineer a particular outcome from this chaotic mess.

21 thoughts on “The Facts Haven’t Changed: Arming the Syrian Rebels is Still a Terrible Idea”

  1. Good article John,

    On another note:

    Hopefully yourself and Ditz will look into the Peter Engel story (who was supposedly kidnapped in Syria) which doesn't pass the smell test. The MSM tells us he was captured by "Pro-regime gunmen" but just yesteday they claimed it was an "unamed group." His release also sounds like baloney. I believed the REBELS/FOREIGN TERRORISTS released him once it was made clear that he was there to cheer-lead for them. If it had been Patrick Cockburn or Robert Fisk who had been captured, things probably would've taken a different turn.

  2. It doesn't really matter whether they arm them or not. It might produce a significant boost for the insurgents in terms of being able to shoot down helicopters and jets and blow up tanks, but in the end it's manpower and shoulder-fired weapons that own the battlefield. The insurgents can't match the Syrian military in that regard.

    Since the end game is and always has been foreign military intervention, arming the insurgents is just another step to try to degrade the Syrian military before that intervention occurs.

    And as I've repeatedly stated here, the end game is to degrade the Syrian military and especially its missile arsenal so that it can not be an effective actor against Israel in an Iran war. Therefore foreign military intervention HAS to be done to achieve that, as it is unlikely that the insurgents can do it by themselves.

    There is also the fact that Israel needs to take out Hizballah in Lebanon and that will require foreign military intervention in Syria as well in order to make that easier.

    I stand by my prediction that the US and NATO – and probably Turkey and Israel as well – will be bombing Syria within the next few months.

  3. At AW.C, John Glaser makes yet another weak case that he knows what he's talking about:

    Glaser seems caught up in another straw man, 'arguing' whether the US should 'arm' the so-called "Syrian rebels"….when, in fact, this is what the US has been doing this entire time (which Glaser seems to even acknowledge at times).

    There does not seem to be a shortage of weapons on the ground in Syria…that is for sure.

    One logically wonders: what weapons, in Glaser's mind, can/will the US provide these so-called "rebels" 'directly' that:

    (A) these so-called "rebels" do not already have and/or (B) the US is not already "providing" them–either "directly" or "indirectly" in coordination with certain states, such as Gulf Arab nations and Turkey which are already openly providing weapons/"training"/funding/fighters to these so-called "rebels"…

    It seems somewhat ridiculous to argue whether it would be wise for the US to proceed to do what they've already been doing for over a year and a half now…but just to do the exact same thing with a slightly different rhetorical talking point spin in press conferences…

    Glaser, along with many others, still just doesn't seem to fundamentally 'understand' the "conflict" in the first place… This is a "proxy war" (which may transform into a full blown 'direct war' relatively soon)…it always has been…

    Arguments like these, however, are useful to "confuse" the "issue" entirely…which is one of the main reasons such 'proposals' are put forward by Administration "officials" in the first place.

    Obama's 2nd term hasn't even begun, and he has "officially", on behalf of the US, recognized an 'new' Syrian government–a group which is currently in exile–and has denounced the Assad regime as illegitimate. This would not have been done if the game plan was simply to continue on aiding the so-called "rebels" with weapons/funding/"training/foreign fighters/other support…as it would have been completely unnecessary. Virtually everything the Obama Administration has done (all the 'steps' taken) with respect to Syria after the US election was 'won' two months ago, have been policy actions specifically designed to lay the foundation for a direct military intervention–which will involve, at the very least, US Air power… The Obama Administration clearly isn't interested in the "Syrian people", or even what happens after a hypothetical "Assad fall"–at least at this point…

    The clear Obama Administration objective now is, for what ever reason, to get rid of Assad and dismantle the "regime"… The 'reality' on the ground in Syria, such as the so-called "humanitarian crisis" and poor 'security "situation" in certain areas, has intentionally been created, continued, and exacerbated by those waging the proxy war against Syria precisely to achieve that end (lay the foundation for direct military intervention in order to get rid of Assad and dismantle the "regime"). This should be obvious by now..

  4. Let's call this for what it is. Arming the AL QAEDA army which the U.S. government officially supports.

  5. Unofficially arming, Officially arming? There is a clear distinction between the two, and if one leads to the other, it then leads to something bigger. As best we can, I think we need to stay out of these conflicts. We're not interested because we care about human rights, we are interested because there is a destabilizing country which is currently not aligned with us.

  6. As I understand it Obama is arming Al Qaeda. That does not make any sense. Obama seems to be aiding a terrorist group. We know what Al Qaeda does. We know what their goal is. So, why does Obama help them?

  7. The whole thing is a proxy war which started during Bush already. They want him toppled and will likely succeed.

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  13. I agree with -Richard Steven Hack- It doesn't really matter whether they arm them or not. The problem is in the war. Simple people killing is awful thing and conflict in Syria is a big trouble for Syrian people.

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