Last week, as congressional panels approved the White House’s proposal to vet and arm moderate Syrian rebels fighting the regime of Bashar Assad, Senator Rand Paul published an op-ed that uses false claims to argue for U.S. inaction. These inaccurate assertions are not only muddling the debate over U.S. policy towards Syria but are also starting to gain traction on Capitol Hill and in the general public.
First, Senator Paul falsely claims “there is no clear U.S. national interest in Syria.” For decades, America has sought to keep rogue regimes from using weapons of mass destruction, prevent the emergence of safe havens for terrorists in failed states, and block terrorists from acquiring WMDs. All of these dangers are now converging in Syria. The Assad regime has used chemical weapons. Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite terrorist group in Lebanon, sent thousands of operatives to protect Assad, and Sunni foreign fighters aligned with al-Qaeda have entered Syria to take up arms against Assad. As the Syrian conflict spirals out of control, the risk that Shiite or Sunni terrorists could seize Assad’s chemical weapons only grows.
The convergence of these dangers in Syria threatens the security and interests of not only the United States, but also of Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and other U.S. allies and partners. As Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said on CBS’s Face the Nation, “My policy is to prevent the transfer of dangerous weapons to Hezbollah and other terror groups — Hezbollah in Lebanon and other terror groups as well.” Indeed, Israel has reportedly attacked the Assad regime at least three times to prevent Hezbollah operatives from acquiring advanced weaponry. Yet Senator Paul — who declared in January 2013 that “any attack on Israel will be treated as an attack on the United States” — is now urging U.S. inaction against dangers that threaten America, Israel, and other U.S. allies in the Middle East.
Second, Senator Paul falsely claims that any effort to vet and arm moderate Syrian rebels will amount to “arming affiliates of al-Qaeda.” The Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Command — a council of 30 field commanders elected by over 500 representatives from rebel groups in December 2012, and chaired by General Salim Idriss, a moderate and respected opposition leader — has rejected al-Qaeda and its affiliates. As Ambassador Robert Ford, a senior official in the State Department who is helping to craft U.S. policy towards Syria, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 2013, “General Idriss and those under his command have demonstrated a commitment to a tolerant and inclusive vision of Syria.”
In a significant move, the Free Syrian Army has declared war against al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria. General Idriss also has repeatedly requested that U.S. officials supply moderate elements of the Syrian resistance with arms and ammunition to better defend themselves against not only the Assad regime and Hezbollah forces, but also al-Qaeda-aligned foreign fighters. The executive branch is already delivering humanitarian aid directly to the Free Syrian Army, and is now moving to implement its congressionally approved June 2013 proposal to expand the “scope and scale” of assistance, including direct “military support,” to the Supreme Military Command. Had Senator Paul and others succeeded in blocking military support to moderate rebels, then they would have ensured that Sunni fighters aligned with al-Qaeda — who represent a numerical minority in the anti-Assad resistance but are being well-funded and armed by entities from Sunni countries in the Persian Gulf — continue to play an outsized role in the civil war.
Third, Senator Paul falsely claims that “if the United States wants to choose a side in Syria, there is no clear moral choice.” Paul ignores not only the existence of the Supreme Military Command’s General Idriss and other moderate rebels in Syria, but also any distinction between the Assad regime and moderate rebels. In 2011, the Assad regime repeatedly used lethal force against widespread and peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations, prompting the start of armed resistance throughout the country. In 2012, it gradually escalated its strategic use of indiscriminate attacks against both combatants and civilians, relying initially on tanks and artillery to pound cities and towns, then turning to helicopter gunships and aerial bombings, and even ballistic missiles. More recently, it has unleashed chemical weapons on the Syrian people, and is now fighting for its survival side-by-side with Iranian operatives and Hezbollah terrorists.
In Syria, the U.S. has a vital interest in preventing terrorists from getting their hands on chemical weapons and in ensuring that moderate rebels prevail over not only the Iranian-backed Assad regime and Hezbollah terrorists, but also anti-Assad foreign fighters aligned with al-Qaeda. However, America will have no chance at securing these objectives if policymakers, lawmakers, and the general public allow Senator Paul’s false claims to go unchallenged in the debate over U.S. policy towards Syria.
— Robert Zarate is policy director, and Evan Moore is a senior policy analyst, at the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) in Washington, D.C.