Michael P. Noonan is the director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Former Gov. Mitt Romney gave a major address on foreign and defense policy before the Cadets at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., Monday. One major element of the speech that has gained much attention was the governor's comments on arming the Syrian rebels. Here is what Romney said:
In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them. We should be working no less vigorously with our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran—rather than sitting on the sidelines. It is essential that we develop influence with those forces in Syria that will one day lead a country that sits at the heart of the Middle East.
At face value this isn't particularly controversial—if we can "identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets." Such an opposition force, if victorious, would severely impact Iranian interests in Syria—and in Lebanon, because Hezbollah has long been resupplied through Syria. (This might also, in turn, reduce Sunni Arab concerns regarding their zero sum strategic calculus over the spread of Shi'a Islam.)
The main controversy over such a pronouncement comes in properly vetting the rebels. Here is where things become much more complicated. In western Iraq, for instance, the number of al Qaeda members has reportedly grown from 1,000 to 2,500 over the last year. Al Qaeda in Iraq, known as AQI, used Syria as a clandestine infiltration route into Iraq during the Iraq War and are likely in the area now not only to cause trouble in Iraq but also to train for, and to fight in, Syria. Lending credence to this, al Qaeda-linked groups continue to claim responsibility for mass casualty attacks in Assad-controlled portions of Syria. Last, weapons bound for Saudi Arabia have shockingly (!) found their way into Syria.
This is a tightrope fraught with risk. The dueling artillery barrages on the Syrian-Turkish border risk igniting a broader regional war, for instance. Furthermore this conflict and other conflicts spurred on by the Arab Spring (such as the current situation in Libya and areas such as Mali) risk adding extra time to the traveling radical extremist road show that has been in motion since the Soviet war in Afghanistan. More fighting generally leads to more recruits being recruited, and those recruits don't always like to return to their normal lives after the fighting stops. This will be an enduring problem for international security in the years to come by such veterans whether they are rebels, robbers, or rogues.
Returning to Romney's statement vis-à-vis Syria, if we can find such groups we probably should. However, we should do this carefully—and are probably doing so now anyway. While this may seem to be comprised by a Kipling-esque number of ifs, the alternative may be to watch further innocents slaughtered and Iranian interests remain unchanged.
Corrected on : Corrected on 10/10/2012: A previous version of this blog misstated when Mitt Romney made his speech at the Virginia Military Institute.