Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of nine books and more than 500 articles and policy studies on international issues.
There are repeated calls for the United States to arm rebel forces trying to unseat Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The most enthusiastic proponents of that course are hawks like the so-called Three Amigos—Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joseph Lieberman. But GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney also complains that President Barack Obama has not done enough to aid Syrian fighters who seek freedom for their country. And despite its continuing caution, the Obama administration has channeled at least nonlethal aid to the Free Syrian Army through that faction's main sponsor, Turkey.
Although Americans are understandably disgusted by the Assad regime's brutal military crackdown, there are good reasons to avoid deeper involvement in Syria's turmoil. Among other factors, Washington has a dreadful track record of being manipulated by thugs and charlatans in other countries masquerading as committed democrats. The decision to aid the Afghan mujahideen during the 1980s ended up strengthening radical Islamic forces. Mujahideen alumni later turned up in extremist and terrorist movements throughout the Muslim world. Reagan administration officials even misconstrued the term "mujahideen" itself as "freedom fighters," when it really meant "holy warriors"—a very different connotation that should have alerted U.S. policy makers.
The triumph of hope over logic and evidence also was evident in the administration's support of insurgent forces in Nicaragua. President Ronald Reagan notoriously referred to the Nicaraguan Contras, that motley collection of democrats, opportunists, and diehard followers of former dictator Anastasio Somoza, as the moral equal of America's own founding fathers.
Such gullibility was not confined to Republicans. Clinton administration officials forged a cooperative relationship with the Kosovo Liberation Army against the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic. Senator Lieberman even asserted that the United States and the Kosovo Liberation Army supported the same values of freedom, democracy, and human rights. Evidence has since emerged that the army committed numerous atrocities against Serbs and other non-Albanian populations. There are even indications that Washington's clients murdered prisoners of war to harvest their organs and sell them on the global black market. Once in power in an independent Kosovo, Kosovo Liberation Army alumni helped make that country a major center of both drug trafficking and human trafficking.
Supporters of the Iraqi National Congress as an authentic movement to overthrow Saddam Hussein deserved to be more than a little embarrassed. Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress, proved to be a self-promoting opportunist with pro-Iranian leanings. The Iraqi National Congress's principal achievement was feeding credulous U.S. officials and journalists bogus intelligence information that helped push the United States into an expensive, bloody, and unnecessary war.
Washington's decision to aid the insurgency against Muammar Qadhafi in Libya has produced an unsettling outcome, at best. The aftermath certainly does not live up to the simplistic media and State Department narrative of the anti-Gaddafi rebels as committed democrats. Much of the country is now dominated by rogue militias—and more than a few of them appear to be controlled by Islamist elements.
There are ample signs already that the fighting in Syria is far more complex than a Manichean struggle between the evil Assad regime and plucky pro-democratic freedom fighters. On one level, the Syrian civil war reflects the bitter division between the country's Sunni majority and Assad's "coalition of minorities" government, which is dominated by his quasi-Shiite Alawite sect in loose alliance with Christians, Druze, and other smaller ethno-religious communities. The Free Syrian Army itself is Sunni dominated, and radical Islamist forces appear to be playing an ever stronger role.
That is hardly surprising, given that the Free Syrian Army's principal foreign supporters are Turkey and Saudi Arabia, two of the Middle East's most prominent Sunni powers. Riyadh's nefarious influence strengthens radical factions and aims to marginalize pro-Western secular factions. That replicates the role that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan's Islamist regime played during the 1980s to make certain that the most extreme religious forces received the bulk of the aid that Washington gave the Afghan mujahideen.
The bitter ethno-religious environment, combined with the sponsorship of the Free Syrian Army by Ankara and Riyadh, should send warning signals to U.S. officials about the risks of getting involved in the Syrian conflict. The growing presence of al Qaeda and other extremist elements in rebel ranks ought to add to that wariness. Foreign activists have gulled the United States into backing dubious causes before. The enthusiasm of McCain, Lieberman, and other hawks for the Syrian insurgency shows that some people never learn. Whoever wins the upcoming presidential election needs to be more prudent and refrain from entangling the United States in that murky struggle.