This week the Obama administration launched the bombing phase of the U.S. strategy with the goal of destroying the Islamic State. While results of the initial phase are still becoming clarified, it is another aspect of the strategy – the arming of moderate Syrian forces – that poses increasingly serious risks and uncertainties.

It was only just six weeks ago that the president argued that arming the Syrian rebels was “fantasy.” Now, as he abruptly shifts his strategy – both in bombing Syria and aiding the opposition to President Bashar al Assad -- he should first answer three important questions: Who will be on the receiving end of these weapons? And, just who are these “moderate” rebels? And, now that the U.S. is at war with the Islamic State, what is to guarantee the weapons will stay out of their hands?


The answers are far more complicated than simply saying the opposition are  “those that are opponents of the Islamic State (ISIS).”

The CIA has vetted these groups as part of their already operational covert arms program. Even though the United States knows more about these groups than they did in the 2012 election when the issue of arming Syrian rebels was hotly debated, the makeup of the three U.S. approved groups — Harakat Hazm, the Syrian Revolutionary Front, and the Mujahideen Army — is still quite opaque.

In an election cycle, it is politically difficult to argue against arming those that are fighting against a group that has murdered journalists and countless civilians, particularly when Obama has vowed not to put troops on the ground. On the surface, it might seem a useful and viable solution to provide arms and counter-terrorism training to the Syrian groups that have resisted the pressures to join the Islamic State and continue to fight against the oppressive regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

However, as has happened time and time again, providing arms and training alone is shortsighted and could undermine peace, democracy, and civilian protection efforts in Syria and throughout the region over the long-term. Even with a seemingly vigilant vetting process, the ability to exert control over the recipients of the weapons is limited. Once weapons are out of the exporting country’s control, the influence over the provider ends. A dangerous and fluid situation in Syria means that you cannot guarantee the security of the arms or the people you are trying to protect.

By equipping ‘moderate’ Syrian forces, Obama risks making the same mistakes as previous U.S. administrations. Beginning in the 1980s when the CIA funded and armed mujahideen groups in Afghanistan — which later morphed into the Taliban and Al Qaeda — to more recently when U.S. arms ended up in the hands of Sunni insurgents in Iraq, weapons have repeatedly been seized by the very militants Washington is trying to eradicate. Providing new supplies in a region already awash in weapons adds fuel to a wildly burning fire and intensifies existing challenges for those trying to survive years of conflict in the region.

There is a better approach. The 30-year history of extremism in the Middle East shows that the ultimate defeat of violent groups happens only when they lose the support of local populations.  The U.S. should launch campaigns — on the ground and through public diplomacy — to aid civilians who are inadvertently harmed by ISIS and also work with local figures to discredit the militant group. In the long-term, this is the only remedy to prevent ISIS from gaining more territory. The objective would be to offer a counter narrative to ISIS through social media and public diplomacy to deprive them of local support.

The United States should also find ways to work with Iran on issues other than Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards who are present in Iraq and Syria are much better equipped to fight ISIS than the U.S. military. Fighting ISIS is a goal Tehran and Washington can agree on, and the Obama administration should take advantage of this opportunity to find common ground instead of allowing political ideology to exploit their differences.

Porous borders, a lack of security, and overall warzone chaos are a perfect trifecta to prevent any guarantee of who will ultimately acquire and use arms in Syria provided by the United States. By his own admission, Obama says there is no strategy to deal with the weapons poured into Syria in the near or long term. And there cannot be. The changing situation on the ground in Syria makes such planning impossible.

Stohl is senior associate in the Managing Across Boundaries Initiative and Abdo is a fellow in the Middle East/South Asia program at the Stimson Center.