Monday, June 23, 2014

The Fantasy of Arming Secular Syrian Dissidents

A consistent argument made by critics of the Obama Administration is that the Administration should have somehow identified, trained and armed secular, western-friendly factions in Syria, and that this would have changed the balance of power in that nation's civil war. The concepts for what the outcome might be seem to vary with the person making the argument, and perhaps also with the time of day. The pure fantasists seem to believe that the western-backed factions could have defeated Assad's government, crushed Islamist factions, and instituted a secular, pro-western government in Syria. A more moderate argument is that these secular factions would have fared so well in battle that they would have forced both the Assad government and the radical factions to the negotiating table where they would hash out an agreement for a new, more inclusive Syrian government, also more friendly to the west. There's also the nebulous argument that boils down to, "I have no idea what would have happened, but we should have done it anyway", or perhaps, "Whatever choice the Obama Administration makes, I'm going to argue that it should have done something else."

Do you recall how last year, John McCain went to Syria and met with various groups that he ostensibly would have had the U.S. arm and back in an effort to defeat the Assad regime? How well did that go, again? Yes, McCain had lots of excuses and regrets over meeting terrorists and kidnappers -- but ISIS appears to view McCain's visit as a propaganda coup. I guess his position is that the U.S. would have done a much better job of identifying western-friendly factions than he did, and would have avoided arming the very factions with which he posed for photos, so as to by now have defeated those factions? Could any part of McCain's Syria policy survive outside of the realm of fantasy?

One thing I don't hear much about is who these secular, pro-western Syrian fighters are, how many there are, how we know that they are truly committed to a more balanced view of the west, why we believe that arming and training them will actually shift the balance in the Syrian civil war, and how they will unite a post-war Syria. Which is to say, the argument for arming these factions is made without addressing any of the relevant concerns. One of the huge concerns held by western nations and Israel is that arms given to factions believed to be friendly to the U.S. could end up in the hands of factions that are hostile to U.S. interests -- just as happened when ISIS fighters went into Iraq and confronted that nation's army. Whatever we make of the incompetence of Iraq's Maliki administration, if the best trained army in the region turns tail and runs from a few thousand ISIS fighters, why are we to believe that the unidentified and as-of-yet untrained Syrian dissident factions would have stood, fought, and defeated ISIS?

The essence of the fantasy is that we could have identified so many pro-western factions, and trained and armed them so effectively, that they would have crushed groups like ISIS. That argument defies logic. ISIS was active in Iraq, under its former name, before essentially withdrawing to Syria following the last outbreak of civil war. Why should we believe that they would remain in Syria and fight to the last man, rather than figuring out that they had much more friendly and more fertile ground for their activities back in Iraq? The position that they would have stayed in Syrian until they were wiped out defies not only basic logic, but the experience of what terrorist organizations do when they face too much pressure in one location. It's reasonable to infer that under that particular fantasy scenario, at best ISIS would have withdrawn to a third country, and at worst they would have gone into Iraq albeit possibly on a different schedule.

Other than as a tool to criticize the Obama Administration, where is the evidence that arming dissident groups. beyond those efforts actually made over the past three years, could have made a difference in Syria or Iraq?

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