Arming the Rebels: America’s Obsession with History’s Least Successful Policy
For a country looking to quit military quagmires cold turkey, the Syrian civil war presents an interesting case study in temptation. Since fighting broke out in 2011, the clamor for U.S. involvement by foreign policy hawks has been unrelenting and consistent, even as the cast of potential targets and allies has changed. For two years, President Barack Obama has resisted calls from Republicans and even members of his own party to provide arms and training to moderate Syrian rebels. His resistance came largely out of a desire to avoid Bush-style interventionism and because it is virtually impossible to provide support for more moderate factions without also helping extremists.
After Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no appetite among the American public for another ground war or counterinsurgency effort. The recent executions of journalists Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff pushed public opinion firmly in favor of air strikes, but they have stopped short of endorsing any course of action that involves putting troops on the ground.
Nevertheless, the political sands seem to be shifting closer and closer to just such an outcome. At the very least, it appears the initial promises made by the Obama administration that the engagement with ISIS would be over in “a matter of weeks, not months” will be proven to be laughably naïve.
The truth is that the administration more or less committed to another years- long, drawn- out conflict when they agreed to covertly arm the Syrian resistance last year. Whether they realized it or not, that decision marked the start of a well-worn and time- honored tradition in American foreign policy: blindly throwing weapons and support behind the enemies of its enemy and hoping it all ends well.
The latest example of this pattern has played out again and again over the course of Washington’s latest military adventure, the Syria/Iraq conflict against the Islamic State. Last week, U.S. armed and trained rebels were routed and overrun by the Al-Qaeda affiliated, al-Nusra Front, in the northern Idlib province. In addition to their territory gains, jihadist forces also managed to capture caches of U.S. weaponry and convince many of the retreating rebels to defect and join their ranks.
This latest jihadist victory is objectively a disaster for the current U.S. policy and lays bare many of the pitfalls that critics have warned would come with taking sides in a civil war.
Unreliable “allies” on the ground
Despite consistently advocating for military intervention, Syria hawks have had a tough time deciding exactly who we should be bombing and who we should be helping. A year ago the answer was bombing Bashar Al-Assad and his government and arms for the loose coalition of rebel groups opposing him. In the last few months that line of thinking has been flipped on its head, but with a twist: bomb ISIS, don’t bomb Assad, arm the “trustworthy” and “moderate” rebel factions, and hope that ISIS is destroyed by the combined force of its two enemies. The fact that their first strategy would have directly assisted the efforts of the same ISIS fighters that the hawks now decry as the “number one” threat to U.S. interests has been more or less swept aside and forgotten in the current debate.
Now U.S. officials will likely have to alter their strategy again, redrawing the lines between friends and enemies. The fact that many of these newly minted “enemies” will be fighting our interests with U.S. supplied weaponry, vehicles, equipment, and training will do little to dissuade supporters of an interventionist policy. Rather, it will almost certainly cause them to argue that escalation of U.S. involvement is the only logical path forward, given this latest setback.
The most maddening aspect of this pattern is that this isn’t the first time the U.S. has armed and trained foreign armies who then turn around and used those resources against American forces and allies. It isn’t even the first time it has happened in the current conflict. In June, for example, Iraqi Security Forces retreated from Ramadi and Fallujah in the face of a relentless ISIS onslaught. Not only did a decade of U.S. supplied arms and training prevent ISF lines from collapsing within days, but Iraqi forces abandoned hundreds of tanks, armored transports, Humvees, helicopters, artillery shells, M16 rifles, and body armor.
An addendum to “unreliable allies,” U.S. policymakers frequently misread the intentions and motivations of the foreign groups it supports. In this case, hawks continually assume that A) there are groups in Syria who will fight our enemies and share enough of our values to warrant military and material support; B) the U.S. is capable of discriminating between the good groups and the bad ones; and C) once these weapons are provided to the “right” groups, they won’t somehow find their way into the hands of the “wrong” ones.
In truth, it is very difficult to achieve even one of these conditions in a foreign country where we do not have control of the working government, and it is virtually impossible to achieve all three at once. Although many of these insurgencies are happy to take American money, arms, and whatever else is being offered, their goals and motivations often differ greatly beyond having a common enemy. Compounding the issue is the tendency of said groups to pour “honey” into the ears of sympathetic Congressmen and Senators, making it all but impossible to figure out which groups are sincere and which are simply aping whatever platitudes are necessary to secure arms from an already eager Washington establishment.
Furthermore, U.S. officials are typically awful at predicting how their actions will be received in foreign countries, and this often leads to various levels of blowback, which undermine the original mission. Case in point: Washington sought to rally moderate Syrian fighters to its cause earlier this year by drawing a clear line between “good guys” and “bad guys.” The al-Nusra Front was among the first groups to be hit by U.S. airstrikes, sending what Washington thought was a clear message which would empower moderates and isolate the more extreme factions of the Syrian resistance. Instead, this was how that message was received by Syrian activists on the ground. “When American airstrikes targeted [al-Nusra Front], people felt solidarity with them because Nusra are fighting the regime, and the strikes are helping the regime,” said Raed al-Fares, an activist leader in Kafr Nabel, in Idlib. “Now people think that whoever in the Free Syrian Army gets support from the U.S.A. is an agent of the regime,” he added.
Did you catch how this very deliberate and intentional message was garbled and distorted until it had the exact opposite effect that policymakers intended, thus, tarnishing the reputation of the moderates and rallying otherwise agnostic Syrians to the cause of Islamic fundamentalism?
Indeed, the U.S. intelligence community’s own assessment of arming and backing foreign insurgencies has found that this tactic, historically, has had very little success. Robert Kagan, senior fellow at Brookings and one of the intellectual architects of the Iraq War, largely brushes these concerns aside in a recent Washington Post op-ed, claiming the U.S. arming and training of Mujahideen fighters against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980’s was a “spectacular success.” According to Kagan, “not only did the U.S.-backed rebels succeed in driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but the episode also played a key part in bringing about the end of the Cold War.” What he does not mention until far later in his piece is the tail end of this “spectacular” success story: the Mujahideen uprising eventually morphed into Al-Qaeda, planting the seeds for the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and directly bringing about the 9/11 attacks. That this episode is paraded by hawks as the greatest example in the modern history of U.S.-backed insurgencies speaks volumes about the long-term futility of such a strategy.
One of the most contradictory aspects of arming and training foreign insurgencies is the metastasizing and self-perpetuating effect that their failure has on political discourse. When weapons and training fail to achieve promised policy outcomes, the reaction of supporters is not to reevaluate the efficacy of said strategy, but rather to double down and escalate. Even politicians who are initially skeptical and reluctant to engage in interventionist strategies find themselves caught in this web. Having already conceded the argument that U.S. involvement is the best path to “success” (however that is defined), the only viable course correction left when arms and funding don’t work is to become more deeply involved. So the Obama administration, which for years made the case that weapons and supplies would not be enough to justify the risks of taking sides in the Syrian conflict, now finds itself facing the realization that air strikes and weapons will not be enough to destroy or stop ISIS. Because administration officials have already been boxed into labeling ISIS as an unprecedented and direct threat to U.S. interests, the chances of escalation (as opposed to abandoning a strategy that has proven to be fruitless) are now higher than ever.
As others have pointed out, in a sane political world, the rout of the moderate rebels and the loss of these weapons would strike a huge blow to the credibility of interventionists. It would cast tremendous doubt on the wisdom of getting involved in the first place and cause at least some measure of reflection among supporters of the policy about whether it is doing more harm than good. However, there is no sign that proponents will spend any serious time considering this angle, and it also does not appear as if the mainstream media has learned enough from the Bush–era wars to begin asking those questions any time soon.
No doubt Obama’s national security team will hold meetings in the coming weeks to seriously consider options (such as sending in ground troops or other forms of greater military involvement) that would have been unthinkable a few short months ago. Such is the subtle and corrosive nature of interventionism. When judging non-interventionist policies, the media and policymakers are often quick to assign ownership and ascribe every negative outcome in a country or region as a consequence of “doing nothing.” Very rarely do these groups consider the potential negative or unintended consequences of getting involved, and often only do so after the U.S. is too deeply enmeshed in a quagmire to make a clean break.
Holding interventionists accountable
John McCain and Lindsey Graham are probably the two most recognizable faces of a group of D.C. interventionists. Frequently called upon as experts in Middle East issues, both practically have their own weekly timeslots on “Meet the Press” and other Sunday talk shows. In September McCain was presented with a prediction by his colleague Senator Rand Paul that arms intended for the Syrian opposition would inevitably wind up in the hands of ISIS or other extremist factions. McCain brushed this hypothetical scenario aside with the emptiest and most superficial of retorts: “Has Rand Paul ever been to Syria? Has he ever met with ISIS? Has he ever met with any of these people?” asked McCain incredulously. “I don’t want to get in a fight with him at all, but it’s not true. I know these people. I’m in contact with them all the time and he is not. He is not.”
Strong words, and somewhat amusing given that Paul’s prediction has largely come true. Meanwhile, Graham seems to have already more or less conceded in advance that the policy he has been advocating for the past two years won’t accomplish much. Instead, he seems content to use this latest shift from the Obama administration to set the stage for the future deployment of U.S. troops: “McCain’s fellow GOP hawk, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), also voted yes while arguing that Obama’s insistence that he would never deploy ground troops to the region was “the Achilles heel” of his strategy. He called the plan to arm Syrian rebels “a first step in the right direction.”
Will either of these men be called to task for the consequences of their preferred policies? Will every moderate rebel defection and every U.S. weapon or vehicle that winds up in the hands of jihadists become an albatross around the neck of those who advocated arming them in the first place? Will the negative consequences of intervening in Syria’s civil war actually come back to bite proponents of intervention? Or, will the media allow McCain et al. to continue to argue that these failures only further prove how right they’ve been all along?