December 2, 2014

JARA | Doomed to Fail: Arming the Moderate Syrian Resistance

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For how catastrophically violent the Syrian Civil War has become over the last three years, media coverage of the conflict is remarkably small. The death toll has passed well over 200,000 since the last UN report estimated the number of deaths to be about 190,000 back in August. The situation is demonstrably worse than it was just a year ago, with the rise of the Islamic State over the summer. Yet, the American response to this conflict has been hesitant, misguided, and is ultimately doomed to fail.

Back in September, President Barack Obama signed legislation authorizing the training and arming of moderate Syrian opposition forces to help the resistance effort against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This task is significantly more difficult than it may sound on paper, namely because there is no clear moderate opposition. The resistance to Bashar al-Assad has splintered into dozens of organizations with loose affiliations to one another and loyalties of questionable strength. The standouts in this conflict are the Syrian Government Forces led by Assad, the umbrella “Opposition Forces” including the Free Syrian Army, FSA, al-Nusra Front (formally affiliated with al-Qaeda) and a number of other Islamic organizations, the semi-autonomous Kurds in the north, and ISIS, who currently control almost half of what could loosely be called the Syrian state. The FSA is the organization the United States has decided to back with financial and military support, but their conduct has raised serious concerns, including allegations of war crimes like kidnappings, executions and torture by Human Rights Watch.

Arming what the United States believes to be the “moderate” opposition is not a recent development in U.S. foreign policy. Most notably, the U.S. armed Afghani freedom fighters or mujahideen in a CIA project dubbed Operation Cyclone during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980’s. The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, ISI, served as an intermediary for the transfer of weapons, training and intelligence to the mujahideen, who proved effective at repelling the Russian invasion, but ultimately very difficult to control. American weapons were used to kill civilians by more radical members of the mujahideen, and many recipients of American arms and training would later move on to form the Taliban, a radical Islamic organization that would eventually overthrow the Afghan government, commit countless human rights abuses and was the primary opposition of the United States in its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

This is a strategy that cannot succeed in Syria. The FSA is an unreliable organization at best, and there is no evidence to suggest that providing them with American training and arms will make them any more likely to repel the growing threat of ISIS than the Iraqi military has been. Because of the failures of the Iraqi military, American arms, including M16 assault rifles, armored Humvees and even small numbers of tanks are now in the hands of ISIS and are being turned against Iraqi civilians.

This trend of American arms in the hands of American enemies seems likely to continue with the arming of the FSA. Just a month ago, two organizations within the FSA umbrella, Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) collapsed, surrendering bases and arms to al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria. Due to the difficulty of identifying moderate Syrian groups that can be trusted, the United States has been hesitant to start handing out weapons. But the steps it has taken so far have not been successful by any stretch of the imagination.

Plans to arm moderate rebels in Syria have been plagued by a number of complications, starting with finding groups legitimate and reliable enough to be trusted. The fact that the United States has had such a difficult time identifying these groups speaks to just how dire the situation is. Moreover, our history of providing rebels we cannot control with weapons seems to suggest we should look beyond short-term gains – are these groups we can trust to govern Syria 5, 10 or even 20 years from now? Can we even be sure that these groups will stay loyal to the United States when the conflict is over? Probably not.

Attempts to arm and train the moderate resistance are nothing more than a Band-Aid, a weak fix to an increasingly dangerous and complex problem. President Obama can take a stronger stance on Syria or he can back off entirely, but half-assed attempts to intervene without actually intervening are only going to result in Syrian civilians killed by bullets fired from rifles engraved with “Made in the USA.”

Nate Jara is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected].