Arming Syria’s rebels: Feelings of déjà vu

Just like during the jihad in Afghanistan, many harbor reservations that American arms might land in the arms of militant anti-Western ideologues among the opposition.  While Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI), the CIA’s interlocutors, agreed to only arm the most effective Afghan rebel groups, it unabashedly favored the most radical among them. The U.S. was unwilling and unable to challenge the ISI’s policies when reports of factional infighting came in.
 
The Obama administration assures the public that a vetting process is in place to keep groups like the al-Nusra Front out of the pipeline, but sparse detail regarding of the evaluation and distribution practices draw into question how effectively anti-Western militants are excluded.
 

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Another salient connection lies in the value of small arms in war against a modern military. The arms pipeline to the mujahideen began with World War I-era rifles that did little against Soviet helicopters.  Just as mujahideen leaders came to Washington for better weapons, the Free Syrian Army already complains that small arms will be worthless. U.S. officials initially resisted providing the mujahideen with deadlier weapons, but they caved in 1986. The same might be true if the U.S. realizes that rifles and machine guns are ineffective against Assad as well.
 
These two questions point to larger concerns about the true impact of arming opposition forces in complex civil wars. When the bond of war between the Afghan opposition factions failed to last through the Soviet withdrawal, U.S. weaponry fueled a four-year civil war that lasted until the Taliban’s rise.
 
The jihad’s triumph in Afghanistan empowered extremists to attack Western targets from the U.S.S. Cole to the World Trade Center. Al Qaeda activities set in motion a second decade-long Afghan occupation. Combined with the Iraq war, these post-9/11 conflicts resulted in countless civilians killed, trillions of U.S. dollars wasted and American goodwill damaged. 
 
Syria’s outlook is no less disconcerting. The opposition groups fight to avenge subordination under the Assad regime, and many of its factions intend to exact revenge when the dust settles. Regional players pledge everything from foodstuffs and safe havens to military training, arms and soldiers in support of their chosen side. Sorting through this war’s fallout will be a generational process with or without the complication of U.S. arms.
 
The final similarity between these paramilitary operations is a lack of long-term strategy. Even as President Reagan championed the “Afghan freedom fighters,” protecting the Persian Gulf from Soviet influence and seizing the opportunity to support the killing and demoralization of the Red Army lay behind American support for the jihad. Congress, exemplified by Representative Charles Wilson (R-TX), zealously endorsed this mission. U.S. engagement lifted along with the conflict’s Cold War implications. The U.S. left and Kabul imploded—a fate Afghanistan is dangerously close to repeating.
 
While U.S. involvement in Syria lacks Cold War proportions, arming the opposition appears tied to American goals in the region. The administration defends the operation as a humanitarian response to chemical weapons use, but that the killing of over 90,000 in just two years inspired no meaningful diplomatic effort suggests that altruism is not behind this decision. The growing possibility of Assad holding onto power, strengthening the influence of the Iran -Syria-Hezbollah alliance, and challenging U.S. interests no doubt factored into this decision.
 
Just as American policymakers pushed U.S. support to the mujahideen without a clear strategy for dealing with the post-conflict situation, questions are surfacing regarding whether the current administration is planning for the mess sure to follow Damascus’ fall. Going public with the policy hours after former President Clinton chided President Obama for being a “wuss”, it is unclear if anyone has thought this through.
 
As these comparisons to the “successful” paramilitary operation in Afghanistan make clear, the consequences for neglecting the logistical, grand strategy and long-term humanitarian implications of sending arms are too severe to be afterthoughts. Americans and Afghans alike continue to pay dearly for Congress’ failure to challenge the shipment of arms to the mujahideen. I hope that the Congress does not fail us again.
 
Cohen is a program assistant for Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.



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