In Congress, an opportunity emerges on Syria

Congress is rightly skeptical about President Obama's request for funds to arm and train Syria's moderate opposition. It would be a mistake, however, to reject the proposal outright. Members of Congress can instead recognize this standoff as an opportunity to develop a meaningful and effective strategy in Syria — one that offers an alternative to the tyrannies of the regime and jihadist extremists. It is a chance to offer constructive advice on shaping a more effective Syria policy, while pressuring the administration to follow through on its verbal commitment to a political transition in Syria. If Congress foregoes this option, the White House is not likely to press its case much further. The moderate opposition in Syria, which alone is resisting the regime and jihadists, will probably collapse within six months, empowering President Bashar Assad and the sectarian extremists to which he has given rise.

ADVERTISEMENT
Members of Congress have raised valid objections to the White House's proposal, beyond justified concerns about accountability for the spending and allocation of the requested $500 million. First, the administration does not appear to have thought honestly about — or at least communicated clearly — which rebels qualify as acceptable partners, and what the criteria are for identifying them. That does not mean the task is impossible, but members of Congress are right to be concerned about such cavalier treatment of a critical issue.

To the extent that the administration has articulated a plan, it is a flawed one that is likely to offer too little, too late, to the United States' allies in Syria. Training and arming the proposed 2,300 moderate fighters over a period of 18 months will not sway the balance of power between moderate rebels and either the regime or jihadists. At this rate, assuming the program is extended indefinitely, the number of moderates would match the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS) in approximately four years, during which ISIS ranks will of course swell. Matching the numbers of the less extremist but still quite unpalatable Islamic Front would take about 16 years. Additionally, the requested sum of $500 million is equivalent to a few weeks' funding that ISIS jihadists generate.

There are more problems with the proposal, including that it is not embedded in a broader national insurgent strategy. Who will be trained, and to what end? Which geographies and frontlines in Syria will the plan prioritize? How will the U.S. react to regional blowback from Iran and Hezbollah (assuming such a modest commitment would give them cause for concern)? What role will key U.S. allies play in this train and equip program? Will it be paired with a parallel diplomatic strategy that can translate military success into meaningful political change?

The plan's main weakness is not its content, however, which effort and honest debate can improve upon. Rather, the problem is what these flaws and the half-hearted efforts to sell the strategy indicate about the commitment of its supposed champions in the Obama administration. The president has spent the last three years ridiculing the Syrian opposition and its military potential, dismissing the idea that the United States can help them, and highlighting the general futility of U.S. involvement in the Middle East. He has neither said nor done nothing to indicate his thinking has shifted. Why indeed should Congress buy a flawed product, if the seller himself appears unconvinced?

Many members of Congress will be tempted to walk away in light of the above. For those determined to stay away from the Syria problem at all costs, perhaps no sales pitch or product would suffice. Many members, however, are open to, and indeed passionate advocates of, a U.S. role in rescuing Syria from Assad and the jihadists. These would-be champions of a real strategy offer the best chance the United States has to make a difference in Syria. If they reject the administration's proposal outright, however, that would give ammunition to policymakers who would do nothing about the Syrian conflict and its widening, disastrous effects on regional stability and U.S. security.

There is a more prudent and productive alternative: seize and build upon the administration's reluctant reconsideration of its Syria policy, and use it build momentum towards a responsible U.S. to the crisis. To the extent that the problem lies in administration incompetence or poor planning, Congress can provide constructive criticism and advice on policy options and broader strategy in pursuit of political transition in Syria. If on the other hand, the administration itself is unconvinced about its own proposal, that does not make it without merit. The White House has created a space for a serious debate over U.S. strategy in Syria, for perhaps the last time before the moderate opposition collapses and Syria is consumed by a criminal regime and its jihadist enablers. If Congress misses this opportunity, it would be tragic for Syria and calamitous for U.S. interests and security.

Itani is a resident fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

More in International

The Kurds show the way

Read more »