5 Rules for Arming Rebels

Before going to war in Syria, the Obama administration should heed the lessons of history.

Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images
Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images

It was for several good and solid reasons that U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration long resisted pressures to intervene more forcefully in Syria’s civil war. To start with, there is the sheer complexity of a conflict at the intersection of religious, ethnic, regional, and global politics, as illustrated by the plain fact that the most Westernized of Syrians (including its Christians) support the Assad government that the United States seeks to displace, while its enemies are certainly not America’s friends and, indeed, include the most dangerous of Muslim extremists. But no matter: After two years of restraint, the administration — having decided to send "direct military assistance" to the rebels — has chosen sides and is now choosing sides within sides.

By now, after failed attempts at managing complexity in Iraq and Afghanistan, all should soberly recognize that any successful intervention requires the terrible I-win, you-lose simplicity of war. When that is absent, so too is success. In the end, regardless of the costs in blood and treasure of U.S. efforts — costs that in this case also include a greater enmity with Russia — it is still likely that all sides will blame the American infidel for anything that displeases them, as in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, and Libya. Neither complexity nor the inevitable accusations of sinister American motives (greed for oil, war on Islam, or both) can be helped, but the Obama administration has stepped forward anyway. Even if conditions on the ground in Syria virtually exclude the possibility of a good outcome, the following five rules — derived from bitter experience in arming other rebels (some of it personal) — could at least serve to minimize the damage.

Rule 1: Figure out who your friends are.

The first rule, politically, is to identify one’s allies. When Obama finally, officially, makes the announcement that Washington is arming the rebels, it must include the key phrases: "We are acting with our allies in the region" or, better, "our close allies in the region and beyond it." But once the obligatory words are spoken, it is essential that all U.S. personnel all the way down the chain of command be fully aware of the brutal truth that explains the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime: America’s "allies in the region" are remarkably ineffectual, in spite of every apparent advantage. Early on, Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani proclaimed his total support for the "Syrian people," sending money and buying weapons at ridiculous prices (and delivering very few). And though his armed forces are small and poorly placed to provide any combat support, he does have billions of dollars at his disposal that he can and does spend on every passing whim. The same goes for the Saudis, who are much less noisy than the Qataris in supporting the rebels but are the real leaders of the Sunni crusade against Assad — and they too are not short of funds.

Yet in spite of the most ample promises by Qatar and the Saudis, Syrian refugees in Jordan have been living in misery — there are even persistent reports of the sale of child brides by desperate families. Likewise, the actual flow of weapons to the rebels has been notably meager. In neither case it is just a matter of simple avarice, but rather reflects the operational incapacity of both governments. For more than a year, Washington has been content to allow others to funnel weapons and money, but with Assad’s recent victories against the rebels, Obama was forced into action. The Saudi and Qatari rulers just do not have honest, efficient officials whom they can rely on to distribute money or weapons wisely. In the bad old days, the Saudis would just hand over sacks of $100 bills to Osama bin Laden, before he turned against them. Now, too, they would willingly hand over sacks of bank notes to a chief if there were one, but they simply cannot field officials on the ground who can choose between the great number of Syrian claimants, given U.S. injunctions not to arm the most extreme jihadists, including those who accept the "al-Nusra" label.

A much greater surprise is Turkey’s all-round incapacity. Early on, with characteristic bombast, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan more or less ordered Assad to stop shooting and start talking. With 75 million inhabitants, a fast-growing economy, a million men under arms, and a 510-mile border with Syria, Turkey should have been the dominant power in the confrontation. But instead of being intimidated into surrender, or just moderation, the Assad regime publicly ridiculed Erdogan and Turkish imperial pretensions, denounced Turkey’s Islamist government as nothing more than Sunni fanatics, and then proceeded to shoot down a stray Turkish jet fighter before repeatedly sending artillery rounds into Turkish towns. The Turkish response to this insult and attack? Nothing. And that is what Turkey will do as an ally of the United States in Syria: nothing.

It turns out that the country’s 15 million to 20 million Bektashis and other Alevis, long cruelly persecuted by Sunni rulers, oppose any action that would strengthen the Sunnis of Syria. In addition, there are also some 2 million Alawites along the border with Syria, mostly in Hatay, the piece of Syria annexed by Turkey in 1939, who vehemently support their compatriot Assad. Then there are the Kurds who predominate in the provinces along the border with Syria and automatically oppose any action by the Turkish armed forces they have so long resisted. On top of that, Turkey’s ruling AKP Islamist party has used conspiracy charges, arising from the supposedly vast Ergenekon plot, against dozens of very senior officers to immobilize the armed forces, which are guilty in the party’s eyes of both defending secularism and menacing democracy. They have succeeded all too well, but this leaves Turkey as a non-power — a richly ironic outcome given the solemn debates of recent years on whether Ankara is a regional power, a middle power, or a neo-Ottoman power as Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu kept claiming. The world has discovered that Turkey is not even a small power. The bottom line is that the United States will not only lack an ally in fighting Assad, but will also have to operate in a hostile environment, given the many people in Turkey who support the Syrian regime — some of them ready and willing to attack any U.S. personnel they encounter, or at least help Assad’s agents in trying to kill Americans.

Rule 2: Be prepared to do all the work.

Given these "allies," the United States will have to do the lifting — and not just the heavy part. There should be no illusions now that anyone will be of much help, with the possible exception of whatever money can be extracted from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. That, in turn, raises the issue of which Americans should do the dirty work of funneling weapons. Always bureaucratically adept, even if operationally incompetent in far too many cases, the CIA already has the Washington end of the action. But if weapons are to be supplied, it is essential to call on the only Americans who can tell the difference between Sunni bad guys who only want to oppress other Syrians and the really bad guys who happen to be waging their global jihad in Syria. What’s needed are true experts, people
who really speak the region’s Arabic: the regular U.S. Army and Marine Corps officers who successfully sponsored and then effectively controlled the Sunni tribal insurgents in Iraq whose "awakening" defeated the jihadists who were attacking U.S. troops. Some of them are already involved in supporting the rebels under Joint Special Operations Command, but if the mission were expanded it would be a good idea to call for volunteers from the reservists who did the same job in Iraq.

Rule 3: Don’t give away anything that you would want to have back.

That includes expertise in identifying and handling any chemical weapons that might be encountered, as well as the supply of any portable anti-aircraft weapons. There are likely already a great number of them in Syria, some of them much more effective than the old 9K32 "Strela-2" or SAM-7 models that have already been used by terrorists against civilian aircraft. Whatever happens, the U.S. counterpart to these weapons — the current version of the FIM-92 Stinger — cannot be supplied, as it is even more lethal than the original that was used to such great success against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Indeed, the Syrian government’s use of aircraft for bombing rebel targets might have to be deterred by threats alone — under-the-table threats, of course, given the impossibility of obtaining Russian or Chinese consent at the U.N. Security Council. Any U.S. intercepts of Syrian aircraft would amount to a drastic escalation, but Assad knows full well that American strike aircraft could reach Syrian airspace in minutes from nearby bases, including from the British staging facilities in Cyprus.

Rule 4: Do not invite an equal and opposite response by another great power.

The prospect of any such drastic escalation immediately brings us to Rule 4, which might as well be Rule 1, or Über 1: Nothing should be done, not even the supply of the smallest of small arms, without a serious, full-dress effort to find some understanding with Russia, for which Assad is not one ally among many, but arguably its only extant military ally. After being cheated over Libya, where a no-fly zone was illegally converted into a free-bombing zone, the Russians will want compensation in Syria if they cooperate at all, including a continuing if diminished role for Assad. That will not satisfy Sunni supremacists but should satisfy Washington, for which neither a rebel defeat nor a rebel victory constitutes a successful outcome. In exchange for the keeping of Assad, the Russians would have to secure the essential quid pro quo for Washington: a clean and final break with Iran and Hezbollah — which, by the way, would satisfy the Saudis too, as well as Israel.

Rule 5: Lay some ground rules for the endgame.

The fifth and final rule reflects some more bitter experience: Whatever happens, but especially if the regime collapses, it is imperative to maintain a sharp distinction between the government that must be purged and the state that must be preserved. This includes institutions like the regular army and police, as well as the Ministry of Agriculture and other such agencies. Under the Assads, decades of nominally Baathist (but actually secular) rule favored the rise of Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Ismailis in the bureaucracy. If U.S. arms prove to be the factor that gives Sunni rebels victory, and if Sunnis fire them all, the Syrian state will disintegrate — with all the disastrous consequences experienced in Iraq. Unpaid soldiers and police become bandits and insurgents; public services and utilities, including water and electricity, go to pot; chaos and sectarianism flourish. As it is, Syria after Assad is likely to fragment into ethnic ministates, but if its state apparatus is also dissolved, the ensuing anarchy will be especially miserable and uncontrollably violent, with plenty of evil consequences for all near and far. The last thing the Levant needs is another Somalia, or several of them. The rebels must be told from the start that if they start firing state employees en masse (as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan), all aid will be cut off.

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The Obama administration has displayed prudent restraint in dealing with Syria until now. After recent regime successes against the rebels, it can convincingly argue (despite the somewhat inconclusive and murky assertion that Assad’s use of chemical weapons has now been verified) that it must provide some help to the rebels simply to deny a victory to Iran and Hezbollah. Even so, one hopes that it retains its prudence — and keeps these five rules in mind.

Edward Luttwak is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace.