Bashar al-Assad is a malicious dictator. It’s no wonder the Obama administration has repeatedly said that the Syrian regime must go. Assad has used chemical weapons, indiscriminately bombed civilians, and laid siege to Syrian cities to starve and coerce insurgents and noncombatants alike. Assad’s war has cost over 160,000 lives, just so one man can retain power. However, while Assad’s brutal reign is difficult for the United States to stomach, he is likely Syria’s best chance for long-term stability. As Islamic extremists use rebel-controlled land in Syria to stage their campaign for Baghdad, the United States must seriously reconsider its policy of arming the Syrian opposition and its goal of facilitating Assad’s fall. American weapons will almost certainly fall into the wrong hands, and the war will remain a violent stalemate, destabilizing to both Syria and Iraq.
Recently at West Point, President Obama reiterated American support for the elements of the Syrian opposition that “offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators,”—support that Susan Rice later admitted includes “lethal aid.” But it is unrealistic to expect that the United States can control who receives its weapons, because of the constantly shifting landscape of the Syrian opposition. Despite ideological differences, moderate rebels in Syria often form short-term tactical alliances with extremist groups, like Al Nusra Front, out of necessity. Furthermore, moderate opposition forces have fought and lost battles against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which could result in the looting of advanced weapons. Whether by sharing or looting, reports have already indicated Al Qaeda-affiliated groups have acquired American antitank TOW missiles in Syria: weapons they could use in their fight for Iraq or against Americans in Afghanistan.
Even if the United States could properly vet and support only moderates, such as the Free Syrian Army, victory would still be unlikely. The balance of power does not favor moderates; they are fighting on two fronts against the militarily superior regime and the intractable ISIL. Over the last few months, Assad has used siege tactics, starvation and ceasefire negotiations to secure most of Syria’s major population centers. Moderate insurgents still cling to control of some towns and even suburbs of Aleppo and Damascus, but their prospects for victory are dimming quickly. Meanwhile, ISIL—a group denounced by Al Qaeda for being too extreme—continues to strengthen its position in Syria at the expense of the moderates. American aid to moderates at this stage is too little, too late.
The fact that multiple ideologically opposed factions are fighting both each other and the regime should gravely concern the Obama administration. It calls into question the logic of wanting to remove Assad in the first place. If recent lessons from Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have taught us anything, it is that a peaceful transition from sectarian conflict to democracy is nearly impossible. If the Assad regime falls, there will likely be no other faction capable of militarily defeating the other, and the conflict would truly have no end in sight. Under these conditions, Al Qaeda, ISIL, and other extremist groups would flourish in Syria, just as they have in post-regime Iraq.
American idealism frequently clouds the judgment of our policy makers. We want to promote democracy everywhere, and we have a seemingly nonnegotiable aversion to dictators. But sometimes there simply isn’t a better alternative—toppling a despotic regime often creates more problems than it solves. The United States is certainly creating more problems for itself in Syria by working against Assad. Obama said the United States needs to support moderates in Syria because they are fighting terrorists “who find safe haven in the chaos,” but arming the opposition to topple Assad is only prolonging the chaotic power vacuum that allows those terrorists to thrive.
Instead of prolonging a destabilizing civil war out of protest, the United States needs to show real leadership in Syria. Our focus should be to coordinate with regional partners to combat ISIL, stem the flow of arms to insurgents and negotiate a settlement with the Assad regime. No other solution is permanent, and until the conflict in Syria ends, Iraq cannot be secured.
Chase Carter is a Washington, DC-based military analyst.
Image: Flickr/Abode of Chaos/CC by 2.0