Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has seemingly never missed an opportunity to call for the United States to become embroiled in whatever conflict is currently underway somewhere in the world, has been leading the push for the Obama administration to do more to aid Syria's rebels. Syria, of course, has been the setting of a more than two-year conflict between the dictatorial regime of President Bashar Assad and a loose coalition of rebel groups.
McCain even took a trip to Syria recently, with the knowledge of the State Department, sneaking into the country to meet with representatives of the rebel force. As U.S. News' Susan Milligan argues, trips of that sort can certainly be helpful.
However the aftermath of the trip has revealed some of the downsides. Upon his return, McCain allayed concerns that any aid provided to the Syrians might fall into the wrong hands – i.e. the hands of extremists – by saying, "We can identify who these people are. We can help the right people." But then a report surfaced in the Daily Star, a Beirut newspaper, that some of the fighters whom McCain met are implicated in the kidnapping of religious pilgrims who are still under custody. The Daily Beast's Josh Rogin then responded that no, the people McCain met were not, in fact, the alleged kidnappers.
That it's hard to figure out who a United States senator had his photo taken with does not portend well for the U.S. figuring out who should be deserving of weapons. And as Middle East expert Juan Cole writes, even if it were easy to decide whom to arm, there's no guarantee that the arms don't then travel elsewhere:
The idea that once weapons are supplied to a rebel group, they will stay within that group, is daft and runs contrary to everything we have seen in Afghanistan, Iraq and other theaters flooded with weapons by the US and its allies. In Iraq, even government troops sold off their weaponry on the black market for a quick profit. Whereas militiamen armed only with semi-automatic firearms can be demobilized after the conflict, if they have medium or heavy weaponry, they become king-makers and dictate to the government or they mark out territory that they control, where the government is doomed to be weak and challenged, for decades.
Fareed Zakaria adds in the Washington Post, "intervention that helps the rebels win will end only the first phase of the war … The next phase of conflict could be even bloodier – with the United States in the middle." Syria is not the same as Iraq, but that war certainly reveals how involvement in a Middle Eastern conflict can spin wildly out of control and wind up with the U.S. buying off the very extremists it sought to suppress.
A new Gallup poll released today shows that 68 percent of Americans disapprove of the idea that the U.S. should get militarily involved in Syria. With so many economic problems still afflicting the U.S., it's no real surprise that Americans have little stomach for another potentially protracted Middle Eastern adventure.
None of this is meant to downplay the very real suffering of the Syrian people at the hands of a dictator who shows no sign of going quietly into the night. But McCain inadvertently revealed just how hard it is to productively intervene in a conflict without setting off a chain reaction of unintended consequences. The U.S. is already attempting to forge a diplomatic solution to the crisis, and that should be plenty enough for now.