My FP column last week argued that the Obama administration was correct
to reject plans to arm the Syrian opposition. The objections
to arming have become weaker as the conflict has become fully militarized,
I argued, but the upside to arming has not become substantially higher. My
column tomorrow will feature the second half of my current take on Syria, with a
set of alternative policy recommendations drawn from my forthcoming CNAS Policy
Brief. Stay tuned for that tomorrow!
Today I am happy to be able to feature three interesting and important
responses to my column. This is
part of my ongoing effort to promote serious, critical debate and discussion on
these issues (for previous episodes, see the Egypt
policy challenge responses and the Twitter
Devolutions responses). Today’s
roundtable features Daniel Byman (Georgetown and Brookings), Emile Hokayem
(International Institute for Strategic Studies), and Mona Yacoubian (Stimson
Center). I am also going to quote from a piece by
Karl Sharro that touched on similar themes. I regret that several others whom I invited didn’t have time to contribute to the roundtable, but I look forward to hearing their thoughts in other venues. [[BREAK]]
Daniel Byman (Security Studies Program
at Georgetown University and research director of the Saban Center at Brookings).
I’ve long championed aiding the Syrian opposition and warned
that Assad might not fall
unless pushed. Yet as Marc Lynch has
contended in his columns (and many other skeptics in and out of
government would agree) aiding the opposition is risky. Even if done well it could easily fail,
and the United States might feel obliged to further escalate and deploy its own
troops, which would be a mistake. Although the Obama administration appeared to
consider and reject supporting the opposition last year, again the option is
bruited about as U.S. policy toward Syria continues to
With a large and sustained program to arm (and particularly
train) the opposition, the United States can shape it, enabling more moderate
forces to gain strength vis-à-vis radical rivals and prove themselves on the
battlefield. A more effective and
moderate opposition increases the chance that Assad will fall and, just as
important, that a post-Assad Syria will avoid being a failed state. Coordinating
U.S. efforts with those of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other regional allies
would increase our chances of success.
However, a sense of realism is necessary. We are years late to the game, and the
opposition is painfully fractious — while radicals are more and more
entrenched. Iran has gone all-in
to support Assad, and he shows no sign of giving in. In the past, some of the insurgents backed by the United
States remained inept and, even more jarring, ungrateful for U.S. support after
the conflict ended.
Yet the other possible policies are off the table or even
more risky. The United States is
not about to intervene with its own troops, and diplomatic solutions have failed
again and again. Beyond the
increasingly horrific body count and refugee flows, ignoring the conflict is
also risky, as violence from Syria
is spilling over into neighboring states and risks destabilizing the region as
a whole. So aiding the opposition ends up being the best — or really
the least worst — option.
Emile Hokayem, International Institute for
for the opportunity to engage in the debate. You make an articulate but
ultimately unconvincing argument in favor of withholding any kind of military
help to the Syrian rebels.
let’s dispense with a few matters. I don’t argue my case from the perspective
of U.S. interests — I am not an American citizen, so I factor U.S. interests only as
part of a broader mix of considerations.
few people who support the arming of the rebels make the case for a direct
military intervention. Intervention has become a catch-all word to dismiss
advocates for more limited action as unreformed hawks (many among us opposed the
Iraq war and agree that intervention should be the rarest of exceptions). I too
question the wisdom and merits of a direct intervention (including a no-fly
zone and a safe zone) in current circumstances. Given the very complex Syrian
terrain, the risks and costs are likely to be enormous. A direct intervention
may be needed in the extreme cases of WMD use or if genocide, contingencies
that military planners would do well to consider.
I accept that some types of weaponry, including anti-aircraft missiles are too
sensitive to be introduced. I actually find it unfair that the U.S. is singled
out for its opposition to the delivery of such weapons to the rebels when other
countries, including Turkey, have done so for fear they would reach jihadi or Turkish
case against arming the rebels is often followed by a plea for renewed,
creative diplomacy, which often would somehow be undermined by supplying weapons.
First, diplomacy is in a comatose state and, as I
argued in Foreign Policy, Assad will have none of it beyond theatrics.
Second, why should diplomacy and strengthening the rebels be mutually exclusive
and decoupled? History is rife of examples of both strategies being deployed in
parallel. After all, NATO had to help the Croats and the Bosnians ahead of the
Dayton talks, which often cited as a possible template for Syria.
a death toll on par with the worst months of the Iraq war, the argument that
"more guns will lead to more violence" is the weakest one in the debate. And
the question is not the quantity of weapons but its distribution among the
various groups. Assad not only has better weapons in greater quantity, he also has
access to re-supply from Iran and Russia and a local defense industry. Also,
one doesn’t have to be a scholar of just war theory to know that not all
violence is the same.
case for arming the rebels has evolved over time. At first, arming (with or
without a no-fly zone) was supposed to convey a sense of Western commitment to
the downfall of Assad that would send a decisive message to key players in the
military and the regime, thus encouraging defections.
it became about giving the rebels a military edge, but I think the military
rationale is overstated. It is simply too late to organize and equip the rebels
in a manner that would quickly bring down the regime while preserving the state
for a smooth transition (I also accept that this goal was probably unrealistic,
but perhaps less so than the U.S. administration’s continued attachment to a
peaceful transition that would follow a political solution). That initial goal
has crumbled: The regime is holding on while the state is essentially gone.
Forget those ridiculous headlines about Assad and his lieutenants being in a
state of panic — the regime can still allocate military resources in a rational
manner and can put up a fight where it needs to.
Syrian rebels have never been given a reason to coalesce and the dithering has
made things worse. Some analysts will argue, based on historical precedent,
that they would never have, but this has to be tried. Analysts will say the U.S.
has constantly failed at picking winners, but that’s the wrong expectation.
Many of those who argue against arming pretend that their opponents in that
debate are promising the moon in return for weapons. I am not. The U.S. will in
no case pick the winning party in Syria; the question is whether whoever fights
now or wins later will even care to listen to the U.S. or any other Western
the very unlikely event Russia and the U.S. agree on Syria, both will likely have
zero leverage to translate this into a regional and Syrian political solution.
The political leaders the U.S. supports today will be powerless to negotiate, let
alone enforce anything because they couldn’t deliver in time of need. It may
well be impossible to contain the worst instincts of warlords and military
leaders who, having seized power through blood and force, will be reluctant to
abide by the rules of politics.
the not-so-distant future, jihadi groups may well roam on the borders with
Israel, Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey, and do nasty things. The U.S. may then feel
compelled to send its drones to take them out because it will not have local
partners to turn to for help. The narrative that day will be that the U.S.
couldn’t be bothered to meaningfully help the revolutionaries against Assad but
doesn’t bother to go after those who did. It will be an imperfect and unfair
narrative, but it will resonate across the region.
waiting for so long before engaging the Syrian rebels in a meaningful manner,
the Western states (now that the EU has renewed its arms embargo) have made
themselves at best marginal to the dynamics of a conflict that has already
overtaken Iraq’s in regional and strategic terms and will shape the future of
the Levant. Every other state is developing proxies and allies.
me end with this: Let’s assume that you are indeed right that the course chosen
by the Obama administration is the best. I hope you will agree that even this
policy is under resourced, badly implemented, and awfully communicated, and that
it likely won’t have any significant, let alone decisive impact inside Syria.
Mona Yacoubian, Stimson
Arming the Syrian opposition remains a bad idea. If anything, Syria’s chaotic evolution
toward sectarian civil war vindicates the Obama administration’s caution on the
question. The potential is great
for unintended consequences: Arms
may fall into the wrong hands, and the United States could get sucked into a long,
nasty proxy war that foments spillover across the region. Lessons not only from Afghanistan, but
also Libya (from Benghazi to Mali), highlight the deadly pitfalls of funneling
arms into conflict. That such an
inherently volatile and complicated process can be successfully "managed"
requires a significant leap of faith.
Beyond that, the negative repercussions would be significant
should the United States essentially become a partisan in an evolving sectarian
civil war. In the region, the United States is already perceived as favoring
Sunni (and in some cases Islamist) interests as in Bahrain or the Muslim
Brotherhood in Egypt. Rather than
an "above the fray" superpower seeking a negotiated outcome that ushers in a
post-Assad Syria, the United States would be viewed by many as simply a
partisan player in a Sunni-Alawite civil war. Its ability to help promote the emergence of a
multi-sectarian, democratic Syria would diminish significantly. Indeed, U.S. interests in a post-Assad
Syria must rise above sectarian agendas.
Moreover, greater U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war would also
open the United States up to greater security threats in the region and beyond
(remember Lebanon). US arming of
Sunni armed groups in Syria could provoke Hezbollah, Iran, or others to launch attacks on U.S. targets. The
United States should avoid being implicated more directly in the destabilizing Sunni-Shiite
conflict that is expanding across the region.
Three critical factors have remained constant since the
beginning of Syria’s uprising and are responsible for its downward spiral from
peaceful protests to sectarian civil war:
1) The regime’s perception of any protest (peaceful or otherwise) as an existential threat and
therefore its unwillingness to reform or negotiate. Instead, Assad and those around him are engaged in a fight
to the death; there is no "Yemen solution" to Syria.
2) The opposition’s
inability to overcome ethno-sectarian divisions and unite around a
vision of post-Assad Syria which would provide solid guarantees (not just
assurances) to Syria’s minority communities, especially Alawites, Christians,
3) The international community’s enduring stalemate, marked
by an inability to forge a consensus on Syria that has rendered the UN
ineffective and dramatically minimized the prospects for successful diplomacy.
The only way to cease Syria’s continuing downward spiral
would be to reverse at least two of these three factors. U.S. arming of the opposition would have
the opposite effect. It would further
polarize the international community, pushing Russia (and of course Iran)
further into the regime’s corner. Moreover,
U.S. arming of the opposition would do nothing to alleviate minorities’ deepening
concerns that there is no place for them in a post-Assad Syria. In short, U.S. arming (direct or
indirect) can do greater damage than good — distancing the prospects the Syrian
conflict’s resolution and embedding
the United States into a dangerous sectarian dynamic that is spreading across
the Middle East.
Karl Sharro, "The
Myth of Constructive Meddling"
[This is excerpted from a blog post, which you should be
sure to read in its entirety.]
…The underlying assumption among analysts is that the U.S.,
and the West more broadly, should adopt a "sticks and carrots" approach to
encourage the armed rebel groups to fall in line with the political opposition
and isolate the more radical elements thus weakening their influence.
Those calls are voiced by analysts that have demonstrated that they really
understand the dynamics of the conflict in Syria, particularly in terms of the
military, geo-strategic and logistical aspects. The option appears seductive
because it appears as a logical extension of this body of knowledge and the
analysis built on top it. It is nevertheless a delusion. At the heart of this
is characteristic arrogance that assumes that favourable outcomes could be
orchestrated through a calibrated policy of political, financial and military
….the emerging policy option suggests arming and supporting
the more moderate elements. The mistake here is assuming that weapons and
financial support can compensate for lack of or weak popular support.
Furthermore, it totally ignores the way in which Jabhat al-Nusra and the
multitude of Islamist brigades and groups will be able to use that to galvanise
further support, as Hezbollah has done successfully in the past by seizing on
evidence of external support for its opponents.
…. The ‘arming the moderates’ option is an exercise in abstract
political logic that is entirely oblivious to the fast-changing social and
political dynamics in Syria. The military and strategic snapshot it relies on
provides only half of the picture….