Arming the Syrian Opposition

In light of the Obama administration’s decision to back the Syrian opposition, or rather elements of the Syrian opposition, I thought I’d share a passage from a column I published in early May:

It has been over two years since the start of the Syria conflict, and the Obama administration has been debating essentially the same set of policy options. The U.S. now appears to be leaning in the direction of arming the rebels, a step that President Obama had overruled a year ago on the grounds that it risked escalating the conflict. This decision to tread lightly did not, alas, prevent the conflict from escalating. It did mean, however, that the Gulf states have played the leading role in arming the Syrian opposition. And for obvious reasons, the Gulf states have been far less scrupulous about keeping weapons out of the hands of extremists than the U.S. and its allies might have been.

Duke University political scientist Peter Feaver, who was brought into the Bush administration during the darkest days of the Iraq War to help rescue Iraq from sectarian chaos, maintains that had the Obama administration been willing to provide extensive non-lethal aid and assistance to the Syrian opposition earlier on, the U.S. would have a far better understanding of conditions on the ground and far more influence within the opposition. This in turn would have strengthened the hand of moderate Syrian rebels relative to the extremists of the al-Nusra Front, thus making the prospect of arming the Syrian opposition far more attractive. Moreover, had the U.S. provided strong support for the Syrian opposition earlier on, the bitterness and resentment that tends to build in the course of an ethnoreligious conflict like Syria’s might have been contained.

But as the conflict has dragged on, it has become extremely difficult to imagine that Syria will emerge intact or that U.S. aid, whether non-lethal or lethal, will lead to a quick resolution. Stephen Biddle, a political scientist at George Washington University and a leading expert on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, offers a sobering perspective on the idea of aiding the Syrian rebels. If the U.S. and its allies ramp up support for the Syrian opposition now that the conflict is well underway, there is good reason to believe that allies of the Assad regime will also ramp up their support. It is thus possible that while the level of violence will be much higher as arms pour into the country, the balance of power will remain the same. This isn’t the only imaginable scenario, of course. It could that the Assad regime’s allies are doing as much as they can already. That appears to be true of Iran, which faces severe economic and strategic constraints. Yet it is less true of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia terrorist mini-state that sees itself as a defender of Syria’s Alawite minority against the largely Sunni opposition coalition. The U.S. can easily outgun Hezbollah. But Hezbollah knows the region far better than the U.S., and it sees the stakes in Syria as much higher than an Obama administration that has been desperate to avoid getting entangled in the Middle East.

And even if the U.S. provides the Syrian rebels with more and more deadly armaments than Iran and Hezbollah provide the Assad regime, thus giving the opposition the upper hand, the end of the Assad regime won’t mean the end of conflict, as Syria’s Alawite minority will do everything it can to protect itself from the prospect of eliminationist violence. The most obvious way to stabilize Syria in the wake of such a conflict would be to establish a large peacekeeping presence, composed of international and domestic security forces. This approach worked tolerably well in Bosnia, albeit it at high cost. Suffice it to say, it is difficult to imagine that the U.S. and its allies will be willing to commit 160,000 troops to policing an Arab state plagued by armed violence.

Daniel Drezner, in contrast, argues that President Obama has been pursuing a coherent realpolitik strategy in the Syria conflict.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute Policy Fellow. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Affairs, a member of the ...