A critique circulating by many foreign policy hawks is that the Obama Administration was far too concerned about delineating the “moderates” from the “extremists” of Syria’s rebellion, and only providing support to the former. They speculate that if the United States had provided more aid early on, extremists like the Islamic State would have never risen to prominence.
Despite its ubiquity, this narrative rests uneasily atop a gross neglect and misreading of recent history. Hillary Clinton, in particular, should take note:
Libya as a Cautionary Tale
America and its regional allies were far less cautious and more urgent in dumping weapons and resources into Libya—specifically into a region of the country which was already known to be a font of international terror.
What happened next should not have been surprising: many of these resources ended up in the hands of al-Qaeda affiliates who flooded the area to settle their long-standing score against Gaddhafi. They successfully used these resources to overthrow the state—and then promptly raided the regime’s stockpiles, and even depots of U.S. special forces, which were unsecured post-invasion (because securing them would have required more “boots on the ground”), apparently learning little from Iraq—allowing the militants to seize everything from heavy arms to chemical weapons.
Immediately thereafter the mujahadeen began using these very assets to destabilize not only the fledgling government in Libya, but also those of Mali, Algeria, and much of the Maghreb and Sahel. They may have carried out the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya with some of these very resources. But even as this attack on the U.S. consulate was being carried out, the CIA was on the scene in Benghazi trying to funnel even more Libyan assets into the hands of the Syrian rebels.
Accordingly, as in Libya, most of these assets continued to fall into the hands of al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria—a cache which was radically expanded by the inept administration of lethal aid from Qatar, and later Saudi Arabia, with U.S. acquiesce and participation.
Included among the bad actors enticed and subsequently empowered by this influx of resources and the battlefield successes they facilitated was the Islamic State of Iraq (the ISI), who expanded their mandate towards establishing a new caliphate not just in Iraq (as part of the al-Qaeda network), but also Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel (as an independent entity). Reflective of this new, broader mission, they rebranded themselves to ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant)—and still later, the Islamic State (IS).
Clearly, being less discriminate with weapons proliferation is not going to help anyone, just ask Turkey. And direct intervention would have been even more disastrous. That said, the critics are right to suggest that the targeted military aid is also ineffective. Here’s why:
Arming the “Moderates” Empowered Rather than Undermined the “Extremists”
Faced with the prospect of an imminent foreign invasion, internal defections, and surrounded by rebel-friendly forces in neighboring Jordan, Turkey, and Israel—not to mention Sunni-dominated Western Iraq—the Syrian regime made the shrewd decision early on to abandon large swaths of territory without contest in order to consolidate their forces and defend critical assets and population centers—with the intention to work their way back outwards if and when the situation permitted.
This is the plan they are now executing fairly successfully following the virtual implosion of the so-called “moderate” opposition, and subsequent ceasefires with war-weary former rebel territories. However, in the interim these efforts to restore order were dramatically slowed down by the so-called “moderate” resistance, providing ISIL with ample time and breathing space to set up their hellscape in Raqqa and beyond. Until recently, ISIL left it to the others to fight the regime in the intervening geographical spaces while they focused on their agenda of establishing a new caliphate in the North.
That is, not only was it U.S. and allied arms which helped empower al-Qaeda in Syria in the first place, but their subsequent support of the “moderate” opposition prevented the Syrian government from confronting these extremists as well—serving basically as a buffer between the two. And the result? ISIL used their new haven to launch raids on the very rebel groups the United States was sponsoring, once again laying hold of the weapons and other resources intended for “moderates” in pursuit of their regional agenda.
But this is not even the worst part yet:
Part of the reason ISIL prioritized these particular territories in Syria was because they house the country’s modest oil reserves. These resources became highly coveted following the EU’s decision to lift their embargos on oil in order to allow rebels to basically pilfer Syrian assets to fund their insurgency. Subsequently, different rebel groups began fighting one another for control of these resources rather than focusing their efforts on the regime—in fact, despite being among the most feared and effective insurgent groups, upon securing oilfields, the al-Nusra Front reportedly made deals with the Syrian government to help get the oil safely to the coast for sale to their new benefactors, and ISIL would go a step further by allegedly selling this crude to the desperate regime at exorbitant prices, which were driven up by competition from the EU and later Turkey.
These oil sales, when paired with looting, extortion, smuggling and other enterprises (with millions in startup capital from U.S. regional allies), helped net ISIL more than $875m in cash reserves from the Syrian conflict. Now fully self-sustaining, their resources enabled the recent campaign into Mosul (Iraq), wherein their bank seizures elevated them the richest terror organization in the world, valued at up to $2 billion and growing. Incidentally, as they swept into Mosul, ISIL managed to once again net a major windfall of arms provided by the United States to help combat Iraqi insurgent groups…like ISIL.
Arming the “Moderates” Has Rendered the Situation Much More Difficult to Predict or Control
The logic behind arming the “moderate” groups in Syria is to allow the United States and its allies to have greater leverage on the trajectory of the conflict. And yet, as the United States has increased support for its favored rebel groups, this decreases their legitimacy among the indigenous population insofar as it reinforces the notion that the rebels are beholden to malignant external forces.
Simultaneously, those militias excluded from assistance tend to see these proxies as a threat to their own survival and viability—attempting to undermine the sponsored groups, and whenever possible, to seize their weapons and resources for themselves.
We have explored how this has already happened with regards to ISIL—but in contrast to its more radical cousin, Jahbat al-Nusra had long played nice with the other groups America had sponsored. No longer. In direct response to the United States’ recent escalation of aid to others at their expense, the al-Nusra Front has positioned itself to antagonize the West’s favored rebels.
These developments divide and weaken the opposition, thereby strengthening the hand of the Syrian government. Insofar as the U.S. sponsored rebels become more militarily effective as a result of this assistance, they are also part of a much smaller coalition over a greatly decreased geographical range. As a result, these sorts of maneuvers actually narrow the U.S. sphere of influence.
Moreover, insofar as these rifts devolve into open conflict, the favored rebels gain capacity at the expense of also incurring the wrath of a powerful new adversary—on balance probably leaving them worse off than before.
In any case, each new division or front in the battle makes the entire situation exponentially more difficult to predict or control—rendering it ever more opaque what the U.S. interests are in the conflict, or therefore what course of action would best promote those interests.
Arming the “Moderates” Has Prolonged and Escalated the War, Not Brought it to a Close
It is pretty simple: more and increasingly powerful weapons in the hands of a greater number of agents makes it radically more challenging to bring an end to the conflict.
But don’t take my word for it—this very sentiment has been echoed by UN Chief Ban Ki Moon, former UN Special Envoy to Syria Kofi Annan, as well as his successor Lakhdar Brahimi—joined by former SNC head Moaz al-Khatib, much of the indigenous opposition and even Pope Francis. All of these have been calling for the U.S. and its allies to earnestly support, rather than undermining, negotiations with the regime and its regional and international allies.
Additionally, the UN has long been calling for an end to the funding and arming non-state actors by the West and its regional allies, which is a violation of international (and U.S.) law and will render any eventual settlement or ceasefire much more difficult to implement and enforce.
And what is the U.S. response to these pleas for sanity? To consistently increase aid and raise the specter of strikes as the regime gains ground, providing just enough support to keep the insurgency alive but not enough to allow it to prevail, now to include officially providing lethal aid to rebel groups, with another half-a-billion dollars more in assistance on the way. Towards what end?
President Obama talks about “ramping up capacity” of the moderate opposition, but this is a pipe dream, as the President has himself conceded in recent days. Even in the (unlikely) event that the rebels were to prevail over the regime (likely riding on invasive direct military intervention by NATO), or otherwise following the disorderly collapse of the state, there is absolutely no chance that the “good rebels” would be able to effectively seize, wield, or maintain power and legitimacy in the aftermath—now or in any foreseeable future.
The thing about building capacity is that it takes immense time and resource commitments, which in the case of Syria, the U.S. is avowedly unwilling to make. Consider, the United States have been building up capacity in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade on a massive scale, and Iraq quickly deteriorated following the U.S. withdrawal (in large part due to the sectarian policies of the U.S. occupation and subsequent meddling)—and there are ample reasons to fear the same may happen in Afghanistan, which is why Obama recently extended the U.S. commitment to the end of his presidential term, even in the absence of a force-agreement. And again, given that the U.S. is not willing to commit the sort of resources to Syria as it did to Iraq or Afghanistan—it seems totally implausible to expect a better outcome in a much more complex situation with so much less of an investment.
And so we see that that regardless of whether provided slowly and cautiously, or urgently and abundantly–providing aid to the Syrian rebels has the net effect of undermining the United States’ own stated objectives and empowering extremists. It should be clear that the best course of action would be to stop providing aid to non-state actors in Syria, as doubling-down on the current failed strategy has and will continue to only make things worse.