Stephen M. Walt

Arms and influence

The Obama administration is reportedly rethinking its previous reluctance to send arms to the Syrian rebels. With violence continuing to rise and Assad refusing to blow town, the apparent aim is to ensure that the United States has some influence or leverage over at least some of the parties who will be competing for power ...

BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration is reportedly rethinking its previous reluctance to send arms to the Syrian rebels. With violence continuing to rise and Assad refusing to blow town, the apparent aim is to ensure that the United States has some influence or leverage over at least some of the parties who will be competing for power in a post-Assad Syria.  

This is the logic presented by former State Department official Frederick C. Hof, who told the New York Times that "the odds are very high that, for better or worse, armed men will determine Syria’s course for the foreseeable future … For the U.S. not to have close, supportive relationships with armed elements, carefully vetted, is very risky."

FP‘s Marc Lynch has already provided a comprehensive set of reasons why arming the rebels is not a good idea. Here I just want to challenge the idea implicit in Hof’s statement above — that providing arms to a warring group earns you lasting gratitude, leverage, or long-term influence. The issue isn’t whether you can "carefully vet" the recipients or not; the issue is whether giving arms today has any lasting effects on what even well-vetted recipients might think, feel, or do in the future.

Indeed, isn’t this a movie we’ve seen many, many times? The United States poured billions of dollars of aid into South Vietnam, but we could never get that government to behave the way we wanted. We sent vast piles of weaponry — including sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles — to the Afghan mujaheddin, and ended up helping create Al Qaeda. We bankrolled Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress and listened to his advice about overthrowing Saddam Hussein, only to watch him go rogue after Hussein was toppled. We’ve given hundreds of billions of dollars to the Karzai government in Afghanistan, but that hasn’t made it any less corrupt or any more compliant with U.S. wishes. Needless to say, it’s easy to think of lots of other recipients of American largesse who take the money and the arms and then do whatever they think is right, even if it is sharply at odds with Washington’s wishes.  

And it’s not just us, of course. The Soviet Union gave its own clients lots of money and arms over the years, but it rarely bought them a lot of lasting influence. Remember when Anwar Sadat kicked them out of Egypt and realigned with us instead?

This situation should not surprise us in the slightest. Politics can be a brutal and nasty business, especially during a civil war and certainly in conflict zones like the Middle East. In such circumstances, gratitude to a foreign patron is a luxury that few actors can afford, and especially not to a country whose reputation in the region is less than stellar. The question isn’t even "what have you done for me lately?"; it is always "what will you do for me now?" 

Assad’s opponents would undoubtedly love to get lots of lethal weaponry from the United States (along with anything else we’re willing to provide), and it might help them oust the Syrian dictator more swiftly. But what giving arms won’t do is provide Washington with much influence over what these groups do afterwards.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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