FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
Obama Contemplates Arming Syrian Rebels. What Could Go Wrong?
One of the many critical foreign policy problems confronting the Obama ineptocracy is the unraveling of Syria as a national entity. While we all welcome the departure of the odious Assad clan from power, whether by aircraft or hoisted on pikes, it is unfortunate that this dangerous event, an event so rich with possibilities, has happened under this president.
At first glance, other than the human cost, one is tempted to pop some popcorn, open an good microbrew, and root for injuries. The regime is allied with Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. If it falls, there is a very good chance that the Hezbollah cancer can be excised from Lebanon and Lebanon will stop being a Syrian colony. On the other hand, the rebels are composed of heaven-knows-what plus al Qaeda. Thrown into the mix is Turkey which wants Assad gone and a stable Syria it can dominate, Saudi Arabia which wants another theocratic kleptocracy in the region, and Qatar because it is bored. Israel is standing clear of the conflict and popping popcorn. We’re concerned because our president wants to look tough and to the Obama White House nothing says tough like arming unknown rebel groups led by unknown persons and giving them a country.
In today’s Washington Post, David Ignatius undertakes the liberal armchair strategist’s favorite act, deciding who to arm in a nebulous civil war.
To deal with this problem, the United States needs better intelligence on the ground. And that’s where the hard calculus of U.S. interests meshes with the quixotic challenge of helping the Syrian rebels. Right now, the United States reportedly has a limited program to supply nonlethal assistance. This program should be tweaked so the rebels get more help building a stronger chain of command.
If the United States helped coordinate funding, the Free Syrian Army would have several advantages: A better-organized opposition might defeat the regime, it would be better able to govern a post-Assad Syria and it could help the United States control Syria’s chemical weapons. That’s a trifecta — three good things in one.
The Obama administration took a small step in this direction last summer by authorizing the Syrian Support Group to help the rebels. Leaders of the group fanned out inside Syria, looking for army defectors who could establish new military councils to coordinate the flow of weapons and money. When I was inside the country, I met the councils’ commanders for Aleppo, Hama and Idlib, who seemed like solid military leaders. They just didn’t have enough guns or money to distribute.
There is a lot wrong with this concept. First and foremost, you can’t just “fan out” and try to find leaders. The leaders will already be there either in the mutinous portions of the Syrian Army or among the jihadis we know are flocking to the Syrian battlefields. If the people you’re talking to didn’t have guns, you were talking to the wrong guys.
We are singularly ill equipped to get involved in either selecting preferred leaders or trying to train the rebels in the middle of an ongoing war. Sticking US Special Forces or CIA paramilitaries into this dog’s breakfast is just a disaster waiting to happen given the presence of Iranian forces in Syria.
Experience everywhere tells you that American dollars, dispensed under loose controls, doesn’t attract patriots, it attracts con men.
Up against this academic butt scratching we have results oriented multimillionaires in the Arabian peninsula.
The funding situation has improved slightly this month. About two weeks ago, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are said to have created a small “Gulf Fund,” to be disbursed by the military councils. The commanders will be paid $150 for each named fighter (including the serial number of his weapon). Col. Abdul-Jabbar Akidi in Aleppo is receiving about $2.5 million under this program; Col. Afif Suleiman in Idlib is getting about $4.5 million. The United States should consider adding money for nonlethal assistance, including training, communications and intelligence.
Syrian jihadist battalions continue to raise their own money directly from wealthy Saudis, Kuwaitis and Qataris. The report to the State Department explains how this works. “The battalion rep or commander travels to Turkey, where he meets Gulf individuals or Syrians who live in the Gulf. The battalion presents ‘projects’ that need sponsorship, for example: targeting a checkpoint costs $20-30K, while targeting an airport cost $200-300K. . . . A video taping . . . is required to provide evidence of the operation.”
This is a very successful model. It was proven in Afghanistan and if our intel people were truthful they would admit that it also happened in Anbar Province in Iraq before the Awakening. It is fast. It rewards success. It encourages the most reckless, charismatic, and brutal leaders to quickly arise to the top.
To his credit, Ignatius asks the right question:
How can the United States break this downward cycle?
But he gets the answer probably as wrong as it can be.
The right next step is to gather into one pot all the official contributions, lethal and nonlethal, from the United States and its Arab and European allies. Then let the Free Syrian Army commanders distribute the money and weapons to fighters, in ways that will build discipline.
The Free Syrian Army has a long shopping list. It claims “minimum” needs of 1,000 rocket-propelled grenades to attack tanks, 500 SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles to destroy Syrian helicopters and jets, 750 machine guns, 50,000 gas masks, 250 vehicles . . . .
Commanders claimed they are forming special units that would operate the anti-aircraft missiles, perhaps under supervision by contractors from the Gulf countries.
First and foremost, I’m not sure we have any Arab allies in this mess. The Saudis are certainly not underwriting any faction that we, or Turkey, or Jordan, or Israel, or Iraq wants to see in charge of Syria. So right there the idea of pooling weapons breaks down. As there is no Free Syria Army in anything other than the minds of foreign policy experts and their stenographers.
The idea of equipping the rebels with SAM-7 is just ridiculous. We are still hunting down Stingers we sent to Afghanistan in the 1980s. At least one of the men killed in Benghazi was engaged in rounding up SAM-7s from the rebels there.
History tells us the last thing we should be doing is sending arms in willy-nilly. The rebels are composed of at least two major factions which will undoubtedly turn on each other if Assad flees. If the jihadis win, and smart money would bet on them being the dominant faction, we don’t want them well armed.
You don’t have to sign off on this whole war chest to agree that it’s time for the United States to experiment with strategies that could produce something other than the bad outcome that’s now ahead.
Indeed. We should be playing the long game here and decide, along with Turkey and Israel (and not the Saudis and Kuwaitis and Qataris) who we want to run Syria. The next step is to embargo the flow of arms into Syria. This necessarily means shutting down all civilian air traffic into Damascus. From all parties. Direct action should be carried out against Iranians forces who will not evacuate the country. Assad needs to be made an offer he can’t refuse. The shameful end of both Qaddafi and Mubarak have really given him no incentive to do anything but fight it out until the last dog is dead. (Lesson: being tough for the sake of being tough can make your life difficult later on).
The last thing we need is the bunch of clowns running our intelligence, foreign policy, and military operations stepping into Syria and, true to form, making a bad situation much worse.