Posted by on June 06, 2014 in Blog

By Nora Chamma
Summer Intern, 2014

According to the Wall Street Journal last week, the Obama administration is now not only seeking to ramp up arms support to the Syrian rebels, but is also working on authorizing a U.S. military-led mission to train the moderate factions involved in the conflict. The operation’s aim is to not only combat Syrian government forces, but to also fight off the increasing number of extremist groups running rampant in the country. Sounds reasonable? Not in the least bit. And here’s why:

Needless to say, the mission warrants more explanation on how it will be executed, including how the U.S. plans to perfectly differentiate between hardline extremists and those whose views and end goals uphold pluralism. Per the article, “Mr. Obama isn’t expected to provide details about how, or where, that training would be done” and U.S. defense officials raised skepticism on “how the Pentagon will vet prospective rebels for the program.” That doesn’t sound too reassuring.

Even if the Pentagon is successfully able to pick and choose moderate opposition members, whose own actions must also come into question, to arm and train, it remains unseen how it can be guaranteed that these weapons, as we have previously seen, do not land up in the hands of those we are trying so hard to deter—the hands of those with ties to Al Qaeda or ISIS, who have committed abominable atrocities, and according to one senior American intelligence and counterterrorism official, have been attempting to recruit and train Westerners to carry out attacks on their homeland. What is the guarantee that the rebels the U.S. trains will maintain allegiance to and not one day pose a national security threat to their initial backers?

And how will this newly—or not so new—devised plan benefit those who are losing the most, the Syrian people? Interestingly enough, Zogby Research Services just released a poll surveyed across the Arab world and found that majorities in all countries oppose any form of U.S. military engagement in Syria, including supplying weapons to the opposition. Further, an increase in arms supply and rebel training is like adding fuel to the fire. In fact, an increase in support for the opposition might only result in an increase in support for the Syrian government and more weapons on both sides mean more violence, more casualties, and relentless suffering for civilians.

According to a study done by Charles Lister of Information Handling Services Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, nearly half of the rebel forces in Syria can be classified as “jihadist” or “hardline Islamists.” Further, “true genuine ‘moderates’—by Western standards of supporting the establishment of a non-religious, liberal state preferably founded on democratic principles—do not represent a majority [of the opposition] in Syria.” Additionally, just last year, NATO estimated that popular support for the opposition may have shrunk to as low as 10 percent of the Syrian public. After all, there can be no serious revolution without a substantial percentage of the public’s support.

With that said, it is important to mention President Bashar al-Assad’s evident growing support among Syrians, and the large and unexpected turnout for the Syrian presidential elections held in Lebanon. According to Washington Post journalists, there is a growing impression among the Syrian people that Assad is the only one who can end the killing. Whether out of fervor for Assad or out of fear that he is the only viable option left to saving the country, it is clear that these constituencies believe, and for compelling historical reasons, that the alternative to Assad’s rule will not be anything resembling a secular, liberal democracy.

It is therefore important that policymakers worldwide determine how to find policies that take the Syrian people’s best interests and wishes into account, even if that means sacrificing face and working with Assad—especially against potential looming threats of terrorism.

Regardless of the politics, one thing is for sure: training and arms support to any kind of opposition faction is problematic as it will only encourage a surge in violence. Over 150,000 people have been killed thus far in the fight between opposition and government forces, with several millions displaced. How many more Syrians need to die before Washington rethinks its bellicose policy of expanding support for the “opposition”?

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