To Arm or Not to Arm Syria’s Rebels?

Sending weapons to Syria’s rebels is risky, but so is doing nothing.

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Cows stand next to a Syrian army tank in Dabaa, where forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad reclaimed control in Syria's central Homs province. (AFP/Getty Images)
Cows stand next to a Syrian army tank in Dabaa, where forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad reclaimed control in Syria's central Homs province. (AFP/Getty Images)

Back in April, I wrote a piece in this space about the five use of force options open to the Obama administration if it was proved that Syrian government personnel had used chemical weapons. Well, now that that their use has been confirmed, it appears that the administration is going with option one, "status-quo plus," by moving from humanitarian assistance to lethal assistance to the anti-government forces.

This is a move not without controversy. Retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno of the Center for a New American Security, for instance, thinks that it is a mistake for the U.S. to get involved at all. Michael J. Totten, a contributing editor at World Affairs, thinks that the rebels should only be armed after Syrian dictator Bashar Assad falls and then only the non-Salafist forces who will, in his opinion, battle Jabhat al-Nusra and likeminded types in the post-Assad period. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

The Center for Strategic and International Studies' Edward Luttwak for his part argues that while he thinks it is a mistake to intervene the U.S. should apply five rules for arming the rebels:

  • Know who our friends are (i.e., in this case, he thinks there will be few).
  • "Be prepared to do all of the work." (i.e., we will need to send in "the regular U.S. Army and Marine Corps officers who successfully sponsored and then effectively controlled the Sunni tribal insurgents in Iraq whose ‘awakening' defeated the jihadists who were attacking U.S. troops.")  
  • "Don't give away anything that you would want to have back." (i.e., provide no expertise in handling or identifying chemical weapons and no supplying man-portable air defense systems.)
  • "Do not invite an equal and opposite response by another great power." (i.e., "Nothing should be done, not even the supply of the smallest of small arms, without a serious, full-dress effort to find some understanding with Russia, for which Assad is not one ally among many, but arguably its only extant military ally.")
  • "Lay some ground rules for the endgame" (i.e., unlike in Iraq, "Whatever happens, but especially if the regime collapses, it is imperative to maintain a sharp distinction between the government that must be purged and the state that must be preserved. This includes institutions like the regular army and police, as well as the Ministry of Agriculture and other such agencies.")
  • The fundamental problem with the extremely messy situation in Syria is that the U.S. is "damned if we do, and damned if we don't" intervene. When we do intervene, we will be blamed for everything that happens vis-a-vis the anti-Assad forces moving forward.

    [Take the U.S. News Poll: With Chemical Weapons Confirmed, Must Obama Intervene in Syria's Civil War?]

    But if we don't: (1) no response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime sends a clear signal to Israel, Iran, North Korea and others; (2) not arming the rebels sooner rather than later, contra Totten, would seem to lessen our leverage over the post-Assad government; and (3) we will be blamed for everything that happens in Syria moving forward.

    Another interesting story came out this week that the surgical strike option that I mentioned back in April, and raised by Secretary of State John Kerry, had been "shot down" by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  According to Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg:

    At a principals meeting in the White House situation room, Secretary of State John Kerry began arguing, vociferously, for immediate U.S. airstrikes against airfields under the control of Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime -- specifically, those fields it has used to launch chemical weapons raids against rebel forces.

    It was at this point that the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the usually mild-mannered Army General Martin Dempsey, spoke up, loudly. According to several sources, Dempsey threw a series of brushback pitches at Kerry, demanding to know just exactly what the post-strike plan would be and pointing out that the State Department didn't fully grasp the complexity of such an operation.

    Dempsey informed Kerry that the Air Force could not simply drop a few bombs, or fire a few missiles, at targets inside Syria: To be safe, the U.S. would have to neutralize Syria's integrated air-defense system, an operation that would require 700 or more sorties. At a time when the U.S. military is exhausted, and when sequestration is ripping into the Pentagon budget, Dempsey is said to have argued that a demand by the State Department for precipitous military action in a murky civil war wasn't welcome.

    [See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

    Look, there is no way that any strikes inside Syria would be easy to accomplish and they could potentially drag us much deeper into the conflict than we would like, but it is also true that the military is war-weary and is facing budgetary uncertainties. Perhaps Kerry was off base in asking for what he did, but civilian officials should also push back if they are given all or nothing options. Figures like "700 sorties" can have a huge deterrent effect on policy, especially if one is not particularly interested in undertaking a course of action.

    Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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