The Obama administration’s Syria policy again came under fire after outgoing Defense Secretary Panetta revealed that high level administration support in favor of arming the Syrian opposition was overruled by the president and the White House. Critics of the president’s handling of the Syrian conflict seized on this as another example of him leading from behind and being overly cautious when it came to using U.S. power to influence events and outcomes during the Arab uprisings. Some commentators even went further, saying that the Obama administration had absorbed the lessons of the Iraq war to a point of paralysis, and that the time to arm the Syrian rebels is now.
In the words of the Russian revolutionary Nikolai Chernyshevsky, what is to be done?
Indeed, the Syrian conflict has irrevocably turned into an armed conflict. There is continuous, heavy fighting occurring across a wide swath of Syria, including hard-fought battles in Damascus. Given the extent of the ongoing armed conflict, there is an argument that the United States should marshal its capabilities in support of the rebels.
It is unclear, however, that a strategy of arming and supporting one faction in Syria’s civil war will somehow achieve the administration’s stated policy objective of ending the Assad regime—particularly through a transition to a peaceful, inclusive, and democratic Syria where the rights of all Syrians are protected. A strategy of arming Syrian rebels would resemble the one currently being employed by Iran, which continues to arm and equip Shiite and Alawite proxy forces. This strategy makes sense for the Iranians because it supports their objective of keeping Syria divided in order to maintain influence once the regime falls while keeping open its gateway to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Similarly, Turkish and Qatari support for the Syrian opposition forces has also resulted in keeping Syria divided, most recently in the country’s northeast, where opposition and Kurdish forces have engaged in repeated clashes. It seems clear that materiel support does not promote effective reconciliation and may in fact lead to further fragmentation.
The United States has a rather dubious record in arming insurgencies and governments in civil wars. The mujahideen in Afghanistan spring immediately to mind, but this is not the only example of an arms support program going awry. U.S. programs in Nicaragua and Guatemala haven’t led to easy solutions. Arming Chinese nationalists during the Chinese Civil War is yet another example of the difficulties of using arms to aid a combatant. Even in situations that could be considered moving in the right direction, as in Colombia, progress often takes decades (and produces debatable results).
Additionally, if the United States starts providing direct military arms to rebels, Iran (and potentially Russia) may expand their own programs to counter any influx of U.S. weapons. Too many analysts assume that the conflict cannot get any worse. But contrary to what proponents of intervention say, the interference of neighboring countries in Syria’s internal affairs resembles what happened during Iraq’s civil war, and the United States would be wise not to repeat its same mistakes. Washington should not militarily assist another group of exiles from a majority sect in taking power from an oppressive regime controlled by a minority sect.
This leaves the United States in an unenviable position. It has no effective tools at its disposal to effect rapid change. To be sure, sometimes it is best to recognize the limitations of one’s position and choose a more cautious approach. To turn Chernyshevsky around, the question should not be what is to be done, but should anything be done? Standing on the sidelines will not lead to any change in the current battles. Yet by avoiding getting involved with the conflict directly via arms shipments, the United States will be better prepared to play a long game. It will avoid antagonizing Russia, ease the diplomatic struggle, and may make it easier to help in later negotiations.
If the Obama administration’s goal is to convince Alawites, Christians, Kurds and Shiites to unite against the Assad regime, it does not make sense to arm a Syrian opposition; these groups view it as the biggest threat to their future in a post-Assad Syria. Washington should instead encourage reconciliation between the factions, which is precisely what the administration did recently when Vice President Biden endorsed Syrian opposition leader Moaz Al-Khatib’s overture to Assad on negotiations. There are many obstacles precluding a successful agreement. But it is better to continue to try to hammer out those issues now, while all sides still have an incentive to compromise.
Ian Garner and Jeremy Presto are Research Associates at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. Please note that the views expressed in this article do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the US Government.