Syria is engulfed in civil war and Congress has decided to step into the fray over whether to arm the opposition in an attempt to end a bloody two-year conflict that’s gone from bad to worse.
This — and every other apparent option for how to help Syria — can be summed up in one phrase: damned if you do, damned it you don’t.
Unfortunately, while recent proposals from Congress have lent a new urgency to breaking the stalemate overseas, they haven’t done much to quell legitimate concerns over whether the United States should become swept up in yet another Mideast maelstrom. Nor do they answer fundamental questions about the best way to bring about lasting good in a country, where, so far, an estimated 70,000 people have died (though some groups put the figure at more than 100,000); 1.25 million refugees have spilled into neighboring countries; about another 3 to 4 million inside Syria desperately need help; and a peaceful uprising has morphed into an ideological proxy battle that’s threatening to destabilize the entire region.
In March, Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) sponsored the Free Syria Act of 2013 in the House, a bill that would broaden America’s engagement by directly supplying deadly weapons to “appropriately vetted” rebels. So far, the Obama administration has resisted providing lethal aid for fear of stoking the violence and flooding the region with weapons that could wind up in the wrong hands.
On the same day, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) sent a letter to President Obama urging him to support “limited military options” for helping the opposition forces in Syria achieve victory over President Bashar al-Assad’s entrenched regime.
The senators stopped short of calling on Obama to arm the insurgents, mentioning only strikes to degrade Assad’s air-power advantage, establishing a “safe zone” for the opposition to coalesce, increasing nonlethal aid, and sharing “tactical intelligence.”
McCain, in particular, has been one of the most outspoken advocates in Congress for extending U.S. military support to the Syrian opposition. Last year, the one-time Republican presidential nominee said weapons should be funneled, too.
When The Washington Diplomat asked McCain in April if the United States should send arms, he showed no signs of tempering his support.
“It’s easy enough to do. We’ve got to provide a safe zone, train them and equip them and help them — we need a Benghazi,” McCain said, “a place that’s a safe zone where they can operate a government and distribute weapons to the people through the government.”
McCain was referring to the NATO-led airstrikes in Libya in 2011 that allowed rebel fighters to establish a foothold in Benghazi and oust Col. Muammar Qaddafi while France and other countries supplied them with munitions.
When The Diplomat suggested there had been fallout from this policy, the senator sharply disagreed.
“It worked quite well. They overthrew Qaddafi. They now have a government. Of course they have difficulties, but they have a government that is there and representative of the people and not al-Qaeda extremists,” McCain said.
But weapons from the conflict eventually made their way to Islamist extremists in Mali who took over a large swath of what had been one of Africa’s most stable democracies, The Diplomat pointed out to the senator.
“Oh, the fact that we had a light footprint and didn’t help them secure their arms cache, of course that was a terrible mistake on our part — not helping them secure the arms caches,” McCain said. “That wasn’t their fault, that was our fault.”
McCain’s right — that was our fault. And it was a blunder that came back to bite our allies and us. France has been forced to intervene in Mali, while in Algeria, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group besieged a gas plant in January using weapons and supplies widely believed to have originated in Libya.
There are other reasons to doubt McCain’s assessment that arming would be “easy enough.” The tired adage that Syria is not Libya still holds true today. The fighting in Syria has been mostly waged in urban centers, a battlefield that doesn’t lend itself well to the kind of airstrikes or safe zones that proved decisive in Libya.
Also, Syria’s population is greater and it doesn’t have Libya’s oil wealth to fall back on, which means it will require heaps of international assistance after the Assad government falls. Furthermore, Libya’s rebels had their act together, politically — Syria’s political opposition is an inchoate mess. And, for the most part, we knew who Libya’s rebels were. In Syria, every fighter seems to have a different identity or allegiance — Sunni, Alawite, Shiite, Christian, Druze, Arab, Kurd, Turkmen, Palestinian, Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc.
And if the West could not keep Libya’s arms from flowing to fanatic militants — even though the new leadership in Libya is one of the more pro-American in the Arab world — just imagine where weapons in Syria might end up.
On the flip side of caution, however, it’s hard to deny what McCain said in a speech way back in October 2011: “The Assad regime has spilled too much blood to stay in power.”
That declaration rings even truer today, as Assad’s endurance has become more galling, his regime more brutal, and its potential collapse more dangerous.
The tally of lives lost and upended is staggering, but numbers don’t capture the extent of the horror. Much of Syria’s critical infrastructure and priceless history have been reduced to rubble, which means that even when the smoke clears, reconstruction will be difficult and instability could linger for years. So will the psychological scars: Both sides have committed atrocities.
The complexity of the issue is probably why most U.S. lawmakers have dithered for so long in taking up the debate. There are simply no good options at this point. In hindsight — always 20/20 — a greater diplomatic push for a political solution more than a year ago might have been the best solution, but that prospect died long ago. Today, the United States should be — and is — helping the fractious political opposition unite and prepare for the inevitable power vacuum when Assad is toppled, lest the country completely split apart along sectarian lines. And at some point, war crimes charges against the regime should be pursued.
On the military front, the most sensible advocates for intervention — and almost no one is seriously contemplating a full-scale intervention — remind us that we’re not aiming for perfect, but for the least bad option.
One of the lawmakers who’s decided we can no longer wait for perfect is Levin. After months of echoing the White House’s policy of no overt military intervention by the U.S., the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee reversed course, co-writing the letter with McCain.
When The Diplomat asked Levin in April why he changed his mind, he cited the following criteria: “The length of time that it’s taken; that there’s some evidence of progress, politically, in terms of getting the opposition together — it’s not perfect, but there’s some evidence; and the fact that Assad is clearly weaker.”
Levin is not alone in this thinking.
“We’re making a foreign policy mistake,” said Rachel Kleinfeld, founding president of the Truman National Security Project. “It’s a very hard call. Arming the rebels will certainly lead to more civilian deaths, and it also puts more weapons into a volatile region. On the other hand, it enables us to do something about getting more of the less-radical groups of rebels on our side. And it would give us some stake in the outcome.”
She added that right now, “the opposition is being driven toward radicalization and there’s a very slow dying of the Assad regime, so that whoever takes over afterward is likely to be more radical than we’ll want, without us having any say.”
“Out of all the bad options,” Kleinfeld concluded, “the least bad is to use our intelligence assets on the ground to arm the Syrian rebels with some understanding that that could drag us into more of a war.”
But for others, that least bad option still sounds pretty bad.
“Frankly, the growing chaos on the ground inside of Syria makes it even more difficult now to resolve some of the issues that continue to dog the question of whether or not to arm,” said Mona Yacoubian, a senior advisor at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on security issues.
Amid that chaos, murky allegations of chemical weapons have also surfaced, with both the rebels and the government accusing the other of deploying them — a supposed “red line” for the Obama administration, although U.S. officials remain reticent on the issue. The White House has been inching toward boosting non-lethal military aid, such as body armor and night-vision goggles, recently announcing it will double aid to the Syrian opposition to $123 million. At the same time, the European Union embargo against sending arms to Syria appears likely to expire at the end of this month. But for now, deadly arms aren’t in the mix.
“We don’t want any weapons to fall into the wrong hands and potentially further endanger the Syrian people, our ally Israel or the United States,” Jay Carney, the White House’s press secretary, said in February. “We also need to make sure that any support we are providing actually makes a difference in pressuring Assad.”
What the White House also won’t acknowledge is that there’s very little appetite among a cash-strapped voting public to wade into another Mideast quagmire after spilling so much blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan — with comparatively little to show for it.
“President Obama on the one hand looks at the polls and sees that there’s no majority support by the American public for more military engagement,” said Gregory Aftandilian, a senior fellow at the Center for National Policy and former staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“But there’s also a growing danger that the militants in the rebel camp in Syria are becoming stronger, and there’s a good chance that if the Syrian state collapses that they could then seize control of the country and then you would have an extremist state right in the heart of the Levant area,” Aftandilian said. “It’s a complicated question.”
It’s a question made even thornier by the growing popularity and military effectiveness of the al-Nusra Front, also known as Jabhat al-Nusra, a group of jihadists that have joined forces with the al-Qaeda branch in Iraq. Their strength gets to the double-edged sword of providing arms: Scholars such as Aftandilian warn that doing nothing will empower radical groups and sideline moderates. Others argue that many Syrians prefer the Islamists — hence their popularity — and a few “Made in the USA” weapons won’t marginalize them or prevent them from consolidating power once Assad falls. And if that happens, a new al-Qaeda-affiliated regime could have a trove of U.S.-supplied weapons at its disposal.
It’s also important to remember that Syria is already awash in weapons. Critics of supplying arms point out that the rebels have a lot — from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, and from Assad’s forces that they’ve overrun — and more may not prove decisive. They may, in fact, only prolong the slaughter (McCain himself has said arms assistance doesn’t guarantee victory). U.S. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford recently told Congress that even if Assad falls, fighting among various groups could rage for at least another year.
That’s why many of the discussions about providing arms now center around anti-aircraft or anti-tank equipment that could neutralize Assad’s military advantage, which is based on superior air power and batteries of missiles.
Much of the recent fighting has followed a script whereby the rebels make creeping advances using their limited resources, but then are forced to cede their gains when Assad launches an onslaught from above, according to Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior research analyst for the Institute for the Study of War.
“There’s an argument to be made that the rebels should receive some sort of anti-aircraft, air-defense system that can prevent air strikes from destroying the territory they control,” said O’Bagy, who’s made four reporting trips to Syria since November.
But those specific types of weapons inherently entail certain dangers, John McLaughlin, the former acting director of the CIA, told The Diplomat.
“If you provide anti-aircraft weapons, you then have to keep track of them and you have to worry about into whose hands do they fall. Do they fall into the hands of extremists who then might use them on civilian aircraft as part of the terrorist campaign?” said McLaughlin. “So there’s a risk calculus here that you’ve got to think about all the time.”
Does the proposed Syria bill in the House accurately gauge this risk? It takes a stab at it — but comes up short on the nuances. And some of its provisions seem to contradict themselves or the presumed goals of the legislation.
For example, the bill specifically prohibits giving the rebels “anti-aircraft defensive systems.” However, in the very next line, the bill grants a waiver letting the president provide anti-aircraft weapons as long as “it is in the vital national security interest to do so” — a huge loophole.
Furthermore, the bill is confusing because if it were to actually exclude anti-aircraft systems, how would it go about neutralizing Assad’s main advantage: air power?
The other troubling part of the bill deals with discerning which rebels can be trusted with potent American weapons. Even some of the people who favor arming the rebels say the bill is deficient in this regard.
“The idea that there is something more that needs to be done to support the opposition is a good urge,” said O’Bagy, who called the bill “pretty good” overall. “But I think the problem with this bill is mostly the fact that it’s very vague on vetting groups — what groups will receive support and which ones don’t?”
Kleinfeld, also an advocate for arming the opposition, agrees that we have to be smart about choosing sides.
“When we armed in Afghanistan 30 years ago, we did that through Osama bin Laden’s network, and that’s part of how we helped create the al-Qaeda we’re fighting today,” she told The Diplomat.
Kleinfeld outlined a plan she believes would allow the United States to successfully arm the opposition in Syria with minimal risk of blowback.
“The first step would be to make sure that we’re not accidentally giving arms to people who are going to be enemies who we’re going to be fighting again.
“The second step is making sure that we have a way to monitor and collect arms after the conflict so you don’t get a Libya situation.
“The third is the people that you’re giving arms to have to know how to use them. That can’t be overstated. A lot of the rebels don’t necessarily know how to use some of the more sophisticated arms. If they’re used incorrectly, they’re not very useful. And so you might need some training for individuals on the ground — not large contingents but a handful of people who can help do the training and who can do the vetting for who gets these arms,” Kleinfeld explained.
That’s all easier said than done, and the Free Syria Act doesn’t clarify how it might be accomplished. An amended bill could still do that, but experts such as O’Bagy point out that the window for us to act effectively may soon shut.
Much of O’Bagy’s recent work focuses on a nascent command structure within the Free Syrian Army called the Supreme Military Command, which was created, with international support, to centralize military authority and limit the influence of extremists.
“This is why the argument right now becomes so important,” O’Bagy said. “You do have this fledgling command, which as of right now does have a sense of legitimacy on the ground and is working very well at integrating the various rebel networks in order to distribute supplies, allocate resources, and basically prop up the cooperation.
“But, essentially, the command’s authority is going to be based on its transactional legitimacy,” O’Bagy said, warning that if it isn’t able to distribute weapons and supplies, it may disintegrate.
Yet getting Congress to do anything swiftly these days is a tall order. Regardless, it’s no secret that the CIA is already acting, vetting and training the rebels and helping donor countries such as Qatar, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia procure and airlift weapons from sources such as Croatia (as originally reported by the New York Times).
Levin hinted as much when The Diplomat asked the senator — an ex-officio member of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence — whether he supported sending arms to the opposition.
“Yeah, I think others are doing that,” he said.
“Should we?” The Diplomat asked.
“Well, in our own way, we are doing it, but that’s not as explicit,” Levin said.
Yet not being explicit carries implicit dangers. “All covert action comes with unintended consequences,” said McLaughlin, the CIA’s former acting director. “You may bring about great benefits through a program. But you almost always have something happen that you don’t anticipate.”
And, right now, no one can anticipate the outcome in Syria, or the domino effect that one decision might trigger. Caution has costs, yet so does involvement — and these costs shouldn’t be downplayed.
“Problems have solutions, and dilemmas have horns,” McLaughlin said when asked about what course America should take in Syria. “I think this is one of those dilemmas where you don’t have really good choices.”
About the Author
Luke Jerod Kummer is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.