It was revealed this week that Secretaries Clinton and Panetta, joined by then CIA Director Petraeus, all advocated arming Syrian rebels with the goal of overthrowing Bashar Al Assad. However, the White House declined to pursue the recommendation, citing worries that arming the rebels would add to the suffering in Syria.
So, in the words of Chernyshevsky, what is to be done?
Indeed, the Syrian conflict has irrevocably turned into an armed conflict. This week heavy fighting occurred across a wide swath of Syria, including hard fought battles in Damascus. It makes a certain amount of sense that given the extent of the ongoing armed conflict the United States should marshal its capabilities in support of the rebels.
However, the White House’s argument, that arming the rebels will only serve to enhance the conflict and lead to further suffering, has a certain logic as well. After all, if the United States starts providing direct military arms to rebels one can only imagine that Iran (and potentially Russia) will expand their own programs to counter any American influx of weapons. Too many analysts assume that the conflict cannot get any worse – it certainly can.
The history of the United States in arming localized insurgencies and governments in civil wars has a rather dubious history. That mujahideen in Afghanistan spring immediately to mind, but Afghanistan is not the only example of an arms support program going awry, or at least having unforeseen effects. American programs in Nicaragua and Guatemala haven’t led to easy solutions. Arming Chinese nationalists during the Chinese Civil War are another example of the difficulties of using entrance of arms to aid a combatant. Even in situations that could be considered moving in the right direction, as in Colombia, progress often takes decades (and produces debatable results).
All too often the United States has a fixation on doing something – be it aid, arms shipments, or direct intervention. To turn Chernyshevsky around, the question should not be what is to be done, but should anything be done?
It is clear that, barring the use of chemical weapons or some sort of black swan event, the United States will not be intervening directly in Syria’s conflict. The memories of Iraq and the continuing mission in Afghanistan are far too potent. Arming rebels does not present a clear path to a rebel victory either. At best it would lead to more of the same, at worst it could lead to even further deterioration, degradation, and destruction. Aid and humanitarian assistance don’t offer a pathway towards ending the conflict either, but they can mitigate some effects of the fighting on the populace. Diplomacy is another tool that may be helpful, but it is unlikely that Russia or China will change their view in the near term. However, effective diplomacy will prove vital in the event of Assad’s collapse.
This leaves the United States in the unenviable position of having no effective tools at its disposal to effect rapid change. Sometimes it is best to recognize the limitations of one’s position and choose a more cautious approach. Standing on the sidelines will not lead to any change in the current battles, true. However, by avoiding getting involved with the conflict directly via arms shipments the United States will be more able to play a long game. It will not antagonize Russia, ease the diplomatic struggle, and may make it easier for America to help in later negotiations. The Syrian Civil War has already spiraled well outside of Assad’s ability to control. Assad will go, but until it is known what will replace him it pays to hedge one’s bets.
Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.