Friday, October 17, 2014

No Arming The Syrian Rebels Wouldn’t Have Fixed Everything

One of the more annoying threads in Washington foreign policy punditry as of late focuses on the idea that if Obama had only intervened in the Syrian Civil War earlier, everything would be okay. Former Iraq hawks like Jeffrey Goldberg and Peter Beinart are great examples of this, but you see it all over the place.

To be sure they are completely wrong. Marc Lynch recently pointed out in a great post on The Monkey Cage blog that the political science research is pretty conclusive that American intervention was highly unlikely to have made much of difference. Let alone replace the monstrous regimes of Assad and ISIS with a pleasant democracy.

And that’s just the beginning. As one expert put it on a War On The Rocks podcast, the whole idea of turning the Free Syrian Army into so guardian of liberal democracy was insane because it is, “neither free, nor Syrian, nor an Army.” Meanwhile the “moderate” rebels we were supposed to support are often Islamic extremists that just aren’t as extreme as ISIS or groups that styled themselves as western democrats but oftentimes cooperate with Islamic extremists. Oh and also the aid that was advocated was always pretty small compared to the mass quantities of money and weapons that have poured into Syria in the last three years from Russia, Iran, and the gulf.

Plus nobody ever talked about giving the Syrian rebels the types of weapons they’d need to really turn the tide of battle, that is sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. And rightly so! You’d have to be insane, or possibly work for the Heritage Foundation, to advocate sending stinger missiles to Islamic extremists who style themselves as democrats to Jeff Goldberg.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see a nice article in The New York Times detailing a secret CIA report that outlined how poorly our attempts to arm various rebels have gone since the end of World War II:
The still-classified review, one of several C.I.A. studies commissioned in 2012 and 2013 in the midst of the Obama administration’s protracted debate about whether to wade into the Syrian civil war, concluded that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground.

The findings of the study, described in recent weeks by current and former American government officials, were presented in the White House Situation Room and led to deep skepticism among some senior Obama administration officials about the wisdom of arming and training members of a fractured Syrian opposition.
So yes, arming the Syrian rebels wouldn’t have fixed everything back when, and arming them now probably won’t either. Which isn’t to say Obama “was right” back then or is "wrong" now. Rather it’s to say that the Hawks that dominate foreign policy debates in our country don’t know what they are talking about.

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