By Other Means

The Electric Kool-Aid Flashback Test

Should we arm the Syrian rebels? America's attempts to do so in the past hold a few answers.


It’s impossible to look at the Syrian conflict without horrified outrage, usually accompanied by a strong conviction that Somebody Ought to Do Something. But since "somebody" apparently doesn’t extend to U.S. troops on the ground, Congress and the White House have turned instead to the idea that the United States might arm the Syrian opposition.

On the surface, it’s an appealing idea. If a big, nasty dictator is crushing the plucky, outnumbered resistance fighters, let’s give the little guys a hand! Arming the opposition would let us feel we’re doing something "real" — humanitarian assistance and diplomatic conferences being insufficiently dramatic — without requiring us to risk deeper military entanglement in yet another Middle Eastern state.

But tempting as it is, past experience suggests that arming the Syrian opposition could be every bit as hazardous, difficult and uncertain as putting U.S. boots on the ground. Here are five reasons why:

1. Arming the Syrian opposition could end up placing weapons in the hands of terrorists.

To put it charitably, the Syrian opposition is decentralized. To put it less charitably but probably more accurately, it’s fragmented and full of its own bitter internecine struggles. The Syrian National Council favors the creation civil democratic state; Jabhat al-Nusra favors al Qaeda’s vicious version of Islam. That’s not to speak of the others: left-wing secular groups, Kurdish separatists, and a multitude of other factions, large and small, each with its own agenda.

The United States is struggling to keep track of the players, a task complicated by our lack of cultural knowledge and "eyes on the ground," as well as by the protean nature the opposition. At times, individual opposition fighters and occasional entire organizations seem to shift their allegiance based on the shifting availability of money, supplies, and weapons. A May 8 report in the Guardian noted that the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the largest and most internationally credible opposition military group, has recently been losing fighters and sometimes "entire units" to the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front.

To some extent, this trend has actually fueled arguments for arming the "moderate" Free Syrian Army: The logic is that if we don’t arm the "good guys" in the opposition (the FSA, or parts thereof), the better armed and funded opposition bad guys (al-Nusra again) will soon come to dominate the rebel movement.

That’s possible, but it’s not clear that we even have the ability to provide weapons just to the "good guys." Even if we think we can identify "the good guys" within the opposition, and then ensure that weapons are delivered only to them, there’s no guarantee that the good guys will remain the good guys (as opposed to taking their nice new U.S.-supplied weapons with them when they cross over to al-Nusra). And even if the good guys stay "good" in the short term, I wouldn’t place bets on their long-term goodwill towards the United States.

Political loyalty is fleeting, but weapons, like diamonds, are forever. Near enough, anyway: Once weapons are out of our hands, it’s hard to get them back — and we have no guarantee that those weapons won’t someday be used against us, years or even decades later.

Flashback: In the 1980s, the United States funded and armed the Afghan mujahideen fighting against the Soviet army and the Soviet-supported Afghan government. In part as a result of U.S. support for the Afghan insurgents, Afghanistan’s communist regime was ultimately overthrown and the Soviets eventually withdrew all their forces. CIA officials clapped each other on the back…. Until the late 1990s, when we realized that many of the same mujahideen we had helped arm back in the 1980s had morphed into Taliban and al Qaeda fighters. By 2001, U.S. troops were facing those same mujahideen on the battlefield — some of them armed with the same weapons we had given them for use against the Soviets.

2. U.S.-supplied weapons might not be used against the Assad regime.

Even if American weapons don’t fall into the hands of terrorists or end up being used against us in some other way, they may not remain in the hands of those to whom we give them, or may be used for purposes other than we intended. Syria is full of the poor and the desperate, and weapons are valuable and high-prestige commodities. We should assume that many U.S.-supplied weapons will be given away as gifts, sold to the highest bidder, or simply appropriated for personal use.

Flashback: Missing weapons and ammunition have been a major problem dogging U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Several years into the conflict, for instance, the United States decided to provide weapons to the Afghan Auxiliary Police. There was little vetting and little oversight, and some U.S.-supplied weapons found their way to the Taliban, while others were simply sold. The program ultimately became an embarrassment and was shut down. It took years for Washington to develop effective mechanisms for ensuring oversight and accountability for weapons distributed to Afghan forces.

3. U.S.-supplied weapons might be used to commit abuses.

Although the protection of Syrian civilians is a prime motivation for U.S. action, there’s also a danger that American guns could end up being used to commit abuses. U.S. forces comply with the Geneva conventions and the laws of armed conflict, but we can’t be confident that those we provide with weapons will all be as scrupulous.

We still don’t know much about many key opposition leaders, but we do know that the opposition remains fragmented and there are few clear lines of authority within Syrian opposition forces. If U.S.-supplied weapons end up being used by splinter groups that torture, rape, or kill civilians, we’ll look pretty bad — and depending on the circumstances, we might even be deemed to share legal responsibility for any abuses.

Flashback: Nicaragua in the 1980s. Using U.S. weapons, the Nicaraguan Contras raped, pillaged, tortured, and killed, permanently tainting America’s reputation in the region. Congress forbade the transfer of additional weapons or funds, and ensuing illegal White House efforts to arm the Contras led to the downfall and indictment of several senior Reagan administration officials. See also: El Salvador, Chile, Angola.

4. Adding more small arms to a volatile situation won’t change any of the underlying political or military dynamics; it’s more likely to prolong or fuel endless and indecisive c

There’s no shortage of small arms in Syria. On the contrary: The Syrian opposition is already awash in small arms, some provided by foreign backers, some seized from government stockpiles, others provided by defecting government troops, or simply taken from captured or dead government soldiers.

In and of itself, throwing more guns into the mix isn’t likely to change anything significant. If anything, it will simply help prolong the conflict without really tipping the balance of power — and the weapons we provide today will continue to fuel conflict in the years and decades to come.

Flashback: In Angola in the 1970s and 1980s, the United States backed (and armed) Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA forces against the leftist MPLA. The war lasted for more than two decades, becoming one of Africa’s longest, bloodiest, and most indecisive conflicts. Although Angola today lacks schools, hospitals, and a functioning economy, the country has no shortage of landmines or small arms. Some of the weapons originally provided to UNITA also found their way to other parts of Africa, from Sierra Leone and Liberia to the Congo, where they helped fuel new conflicts and enable new abuses.

5. To change the conflict’s dynamics, we’d need to provide the opposition with heavy weapons — but such weapons are only effective in the hands of well-trained troops.

More small arms won’t help the Syrian opposition prevail against Assad’s planes, tanks, and heavy artillery. If we want to see the Syrian rebels prevail, we’d need to provide them with over-match, in the form of heavy weapons. Providing such weapons to the Syrian opposition only doubles all the risks already mentioned — weapons may end up in the wrong hands or be used to commit abuses.

On top of that, these weapons are unlikely to make a military difference unless we can also provide the Syrian military with extensive and thorough training and advising. As Colin Gray puts it, "weapons don’t make war."

Unlike an AK-47, which is famously easy to use (so much so that it’s been a major enabler of the recruitment of children into the world’s conflicts), heavy weapons generally require operators with significant training and experience — as well as troops with the discipline to use them effectively and appropriately in fast-moving combat situations.

This, in turn, means that we would have to make a commitment to advising and training the Syrian opposition — something that’s very difficult to do effectively without troops on the ground. We already have limited training facilities outside of Syria, but in the middle of an ongoing conflict, it’s almost impossible for training to be thorough and effective when it takes place only briefly and far away from the battlefield. Effective commanders and fighters are understandably reluctant to leave the battlefield (and the country) for extended training periods. And when U.S. trainers are far away from the action, we have little ability to assess whether skills are successfully transferred to other fighters, and little ability to assess whether training is translating into effective tactical use of weapons on the ground.

Proceed with Caution

I don’t mean to suggest that arming the Syrian opposition should be taken off the table entirely. But if we proceed, we should do so only with the utmost caution: After all, history suggests that U.S. efforts to arm insurgents tend not to end well.

Like so many global tragedies, this is one with no simple solution. It’s a mess, and any "solution" will be messy, as well. But as with any proposed intervention with humanitarian motives, "do no harm" should be our first priority. If we can help, we should, even if there is some risk involved — but if our actions are likely to just make things worse, we should refrain, painful as that is.

All of the above objections to arming the rebels could be addressed, in theory: Maybe we can adequately vet those to whom we provide weapons; maybe we can devise some adequate means to account for how and by whom weapons are used; maybe we can find means to ensure that weapons provided today won’t be used against us tomorrow, or remain in the region to fuel new conflicts; maybe we can develop truly effective long-distance training and advisory programs. Arming the Syrian opposition would also raise many of the same international law problems as a direct military intervention, though this is a topic for another day. Here again, maybe we could also figure out how to overcome these legal obstacles.

But that’s a whole lot of maybes.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.