Posted by on June 14, 2013 in Blog

Last night, the Obama Administration announced that it has concluded that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against its opponents in Syria’s civil war, and that it would begin to arm the rebels fighting against the Syrian government. White House officials said that the shipments of arms would be coordinated by the CIA and would include small arms, ammunition, and possibly anti-tank weapons. This list notably excludes the anti-aircraft weaponry that the rebels insist they need to neutralize the regime’s advantage in the skies. According to press reports, the news was greeted with cautious enthusiasm by rebels forces, angry that the US has taken so long to commit to aid them, but glad for the new support. 

The President’s decision also represents a capitulation to advocates of intervention in Washington. Some, like Sen. John McCain, have been advocating for greater US involvement for months, and have swiftly moved to pressing Obama for not going far enough. Some, like former President Bill Clinton, seem to be more recent converts to the cause. More than interventionists in Washington, the President’s thinking on Syria likely shifted due to the rebels recent defeat in Qusayr, a strategic city on Syria’s border with Lebanon. The fighting in Qusayr was the most overt example yet of Hezbollah’s intervention on behalf of the Assad regime, and, coupled with mounting rebel losses in other parts of the country, the rebels’ defeat there seems to have pressed the President to act.

Since the Syrian uprising began more than two years, the Administration has exhibited admirable caution in dealing with the situation. Recognizing that Syria represents a profound humanitarian and refugee crisis, the President and his aides have worked to mobilize American and international resources to alleviate Syrian suffering where possible. The President set out a “red line,” the use of chemical weapons, and said that such a scenario would “change his calculations,” a move he surely regrets now that it has painted him into a corner. Throughout the conflict, though, Obama seemed skeptical of greater American involvement, correctly unconvinced that arming the rebels or any other suggested solution would do much to stop the bloodletting in Syria. In the face of greater pressure in Washington and rebel losses in Syria, this skepticism seems to have faded away.

Arming the rebels remains an incredibly unwise choice. It will intensify the struggle, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis, involve the US in a sectarian struggle, and expose the country to the possibility of escalating commitments. It may be instructive to examine these ideas in greater detail:

1) Choosing Sides in a Sectarian War

By arming the rebels, the US has now allied itself with one side in an increasingly ugly religious sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites. There is a certain irony here, since the modern epidemic of sectarianism in the Middle East was largely unleashed by the American invasion of Iraq, which empowered the country’s Shiite majority (George W. Bush reportedly did not understand the difference). Intervening on the side of the largely Sunni rebels in Syria places the US firmly in the Sunni camp, a move that has the potential to destroy American relations with Shiites across the region for years to come.

To be clear, the US has long supported Sunni allies like Saudi Arabia and Jordan against Shiite Iran. However, this support was at least below the radar. There is an enormous qualitative difference between favoring one side in a struggle that mostly consists of rhetoric and saber rattling and actively arming one sect in a civil war against another. Though most Americans may not know the difference, we can be sure that young Shiites throughout the region will remember.   

2) The Ratchet Effect

The Administration’s decision also puts their Syria policy on a ratchet - in other words, easy to push in one direction, but nearly impossible to turn back. Imagine that six months from now, American small arms have failed to turn the tide and the rebels are again being routed by the Assad regime. It will be much easier for the President to take the next logical step, sending them anti-tank weaponry, than it would be for him to disavow his newfound allies. From there, it’s a short step to anti-aircraft rockets, and from there to American air strikes. Each step is justified as a way to redeem previous investments, a mistake economists call the sunk cost fallacy.

This process works both at home and abroad. Once the President commits to the rebels, he will face pressure from them (and their CIA handlers) for even greater support. He will hear similar arguments from Turkey, Gulf Arab states and other interested allies. And on Capitol Hill, each step he takes will be greeted by calls to do more, a principle already illustrated by Sens. McCain and Graham. Once the President commits to the rebels, he faces tremendous pressure to do everything in his power to help them win, or else be humiliated. 

3) Kills Chances for a Diplomatic Solution

Yesterday’s announcement will likely be the death knell for the Geneva peace conference, the result of months of hard work from many of Obama’s closest advisors. Though the conference had little chance for success anyway, yesterday’s announcement is likely to anger the Assad regime without changing the situation on the ground enough to force concessions from either side. Thus, the best opportunity for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the foreseeable future will likely be lost.

4) Increases Chances of Chemical Weapons Use

It’s odd that the Administration offered Assad’s use of chemical weapons as a reason to arm the rebels, since arming the rebels actually makes it more likely that chemical weapons will be used. To be clear, the use of chemical weapons is a war crime and an act of repugnant cruelty, but people killed by bullets and bombs are just as dead as those killed by sarin gas. It makes very little sense to be unconcerned with the 90,000 people that have died in Syria by conventional means and ready to arm the opposition because of 150 victims of sarin gas. Furthermore, this decision will likely increase the Assad regime’s desperation, making them more likely to use chemical weapons more frequently. 

5) Deforming the Peace

We talked above about the deleterious effects this decision will have on the Geneva peace conference, but it also will hurt future prospects for peace in Syria. As the conflict becomes further militarized, the best-armed and most militarily skilled parts of the opposition will rise to prominence, crowding out moderates more inclined towards reconciliation. A similar process takes place within the regime, as those who might be open to peace with the rebels are sidelined by hardliners. These changes are likely to prolong the conflict by marginalizing those best equipped to make peace, and when peace finally does come, it will privilege the interests of those armed leaders. For those who want to see a stable, secular Syria emerge from this disastrous war, arming the rebels is a disastrous option.

6) Arms Are Fungible

In Syria, as in most places in the world, weapons are sold on the black market to the highest bidder. This means that American arms shipments will make it easier for jihadists to get arms by increasing the total supply in the country, regardless of whether US weapons physically end up with them. Strengthening jihadist groups like the al-Nusra Front could have disastrous consequences not only for Syria, but also for Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and the region as a whole. Despite the CIA’s attempts to make sure only secular rebels receive American arms, strengthening jihadis will be an inevitable side effect.

7) The Afghan Example 

The final reason is an example from the recent past: the American effort to arm mujahideen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the 1980’s. That policy achieved some short-term goals, like forcing a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, but it prolonged and intensified the country’s civil war, with disastrous consequences for Afghan civilians. It empowered the most radical of the mujahideen, like Osama bin Laden, many of whom would later become dedicated enemies of the US. It destabilized Afghanistan and Pakistan, setting the stage for the rise of the Taliban and allowing them to provide a safe haven to al Qaeda. Many Arab mujahideen returned to destabilize their home countries, like Egypt and Algeria.  So, it is staggering that Bill Clinton would mention Afghanistan’s example as a reason for intervention rather than a cautionary tale. One hope the current President can see the difference.

Many interventionists tend to argue that what is happening in Syria is terrible, and that therefore the US should intervene. However, this analysis is incomplete. The salient question is not whether the situation is terrible (of course it is), but whether American action can make it better. On this test, arming the rebels clearly fails. Intensifying the war and empowering armed elements can only make the situation for civilians worse, not better. For a President, it is incredibly difficult to stand by during such a crisis; the pressure to do something can be overwhelming. However, no core American interest is threatened in Syria, and neither side is a natural ally. For two years, the President seems to have understood this brutal calculus. It is lamentable to see him lose his nerve now.     

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