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Arms Against Atrophy?

February 26, 2013

With an influx of Saudi-purchased arms and ideas floating for non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels, irate supporters of directly arming the Syrian rebels are demanding more. America sitting back and refusing to go all-in with the Syrian revolution, while letting regional powers do the heavy lifting and pursue their own agendas, rankles those who believe American “leadership” on Syria is the necessary ingredient to ensuring its future as an American ally. America’s apathy in refusing to arm Syrian rebels will, supposedly, translate into atrophy of its power. Already a mythology of the lost opportunity to reshape the politics of the Middle East is emerging. The very minimum necessary effort to reverse this precipitous and voluntary decline, is for the U.S. to begin sending weapons in Syria.

To fail to do so as other countries arm Syrian rebels sometimes strikes commentators and analysts as an even more egregious sign of decay (even as it revives a dubious notion that American decisiveness can make up for the geopolitical difficulty of competing for dominant influence in a country – whether it’s Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria – with its most powerful neighbors). Walter Russell Mead, in his essay argues along with many others that staying out of the Syrian arms market will simply lead to an extremist takeover:

It is still the Saudis deciding who gets the weapons and the dough, and presumably the Saudis who have the influence over the rebels themselves. Those who have long memories when it comes to unpleasant truths will remember what happened in Afghanistan when the United States let Pakistan and the Saudis decide which groups got support in the fight against the Soviet Union.

That Mead thinks American provision of weapons would be somehow easier than in Afghanistan is highly questionable. The U.S. had no choice but to let Pakistan’s ISI pick winners, it needed the ISI, and indeed, a massive expansion of the ISI and support of the Pakistani praetorian state, simply to move armaments into Afghanistan.

Who, exactly, is going to distribute weapons in Syria? The notion that Americans sitting in, say, Gaziantep or Al Mafraq really have the last say about where weapons ultimately end up in Syria is absurd, whether they are arriving on the American tab or not. It will be Arab and Turkish personnel doing the bulk of the heavy lifting inside Syria, or else Syrian arms trafficking networks. All of these actors have differing priorities both from each other and the United States. The notion that U.S. cash will somehow provide sufficient leverage to micromanage this process is dubious, since it is not as if the Gulf states are particularly in need of our money (though they are always happy for us to foot more of the bill).

Ensuring that proxies stay in line is not a question of leadership, it is a question of control and leverage. There are two broad options for ensuring this. One would be to send, on an ambitious scale, Special Forces and paramilitary officers specializing in unconventional warfare to actually supervise and monitor not simply weapons shipments, but the groups receiving them inside Syria. This was more or less the approach the U.S. used in Laos during the Indochinese wars. There, U.S. proxies received their arms from U.S. aircraft, with U.S. Special Forces and CIA officers working closely alongside armed groups in country.

Another possible model, in Nicaragua, would be for a smaller number of U.S. personnel to operate in bordering safe-havens, and let the proxy groups strike across the border. This must overcome numerous pitfalls. Keeping supervision effective from across the border fosters dependency and reduces the ability of these groups to win territory and legitimacy for logistical and political reasons. This was not much of a problem with the Contras, but then again the Contras never made gains outside rural Nicaragua and never seriously contested cities. In Syria’s case, the need to actually govern territory and establish local legitimacy forces the U.S. then to rely on intermediaries to fill the logistical gap, as the ISI did in Afghanistan, or to risk America’s favorite insurgents failing to effectively establish influence and control vis-a-vis other insurgent groups.

Obviously, America was nowhere near as hands-on in Afghanistan, as Mead points out – but the most effective manner of establishing proxy forces requires a large commitment of precious few assets. CIA paramilitary and SF capabilities are badly needed in a variety of theaters, particularly as Security Force Assistance and Foreign Internal Defense are now critical and increasingly overstretched components of our counter-terrorism strategy.

Besides, proponents of arming our way into the hearts of Syrian rebels both inflate attitudinal benefits and conflate them with behavioral changes. For one, just because a weapon is American-bought will count for little to fighters who receive them from Arab or Turkish hands. Nor should we assume receiving U.S. aid will sour them to advances from the Saudis and others. After all, the more sellers there are, the more the buyer can bid up the price of their affection and loyalty. In Angola’s war of independence and subsequent civil war, UNITA and the FNLA took support from China even after or in the midst of U.S. advances, and neither side spurned Chinese advances even though China also supported MPLA forces at various times (indeed, it did so to try and win over the MPLA from the USSR – a move which failed).

Even if the U.S. somehow outright wins the favor of Syrian rebel groups, a rebel group which calibrates its behavior to U.S. preferences rather than the political realities of controlling Syria is going to have trouble surviving in the post-war climate. This is especially crucial when confronting the possibility of countering extremist movements in Syria. Despite many assertions that we must arm Syrian rebels for victory, beating Assad hardly solves their problem. Given the cohesion and capabilities of various jihadist groups in Syria, they are not simply going to melt away. In all likelihood, their current backers will want to keep support flowing in order to ensure they have a proxy or ally free from U.S. influence when the dust settles. Considering the backlash the U.S. faced simply for designating Jahbat al Nusra a terrorist group, trying to actually cut off it and similar groups’ supplies, if even practically feasible, would jeopardize U.S. influence and widen splits within the Syrian revolutionary coalition.

Even assuming rebels found the U.S. proscription of extremist fighters tolerable, what would the U.S. need to do to precipitate a crackdown on them by its erstwhile Syrian allies? In Libya, the government let extremist organizations with anti-Western tendencies tear apart shrines, Western graveyards, and attack diplomats almost without consequence, despite NATO’s direct intervention to help topple Gaddafi. In Syria, where extremist groups are even better organized and armed relative to their secular and mainstream Islamist counterpart, escalating conflict with jihadists and opening a second stage to the Syrian civil war is even more dangerous. Western support for secularists and amenable Islamists will not cow jihadists into disarming. As Jihadica points out, posters on Shumukh al Islam are already asserting that what happens after the fall of the regime is of even greater concern than the war against the regime itself.

Let’s be clear of what the U.S. would need the secularists and Islamists to undertake to stamp out the jihadists in Syria. Not simply unite, not simply win, but maintain the motive and capability to fight and kill their one-time partners once they have finished with the regime. This is not a mere competition for influence, it will be war.

In Libya, even after Benghazi, U.S. pressure, and additional support on counter-terrorism, the group many blame for the attack, Ansar al Sharia, openly operates in Benghazi and the central government cedes them a role in militias’ security provision there, even as assassins and kidnappers target Libyan security forces there. In Iraq, despite a small Sunni population and a relatively capable and competent Iraqi government, flush with years of U.S. training, equipment, and cash (and not to mention a concerted, years-long U.S. effort to eradicate the group), AQI still claims responsibility for raising hell across Iraq. The audacity of even significantly checking extremist groups in Syria merely with U.S. supplies and the goodwill of whatever support we win deserves much, much further scrutiny from policymakers and practical justification from advocates of arming Syrians for victory.

Arming the rebels to win the war more quickly is a relatively straightforward case to make, but to address the second and third-order concerns relies on outlining logistical mechanisms, force structures, and direction of post-war rebel military activities that are far less appetizing and far less likely to achieve their intended ends. It is easy to wax grandiose about the need for American leadership and spit venom at its lethargy, but outlining how the U.S. would actually take the lead on the ground in Syria and convince its supposed new friends to launch a new war against their cobelligerents is a much more difficult propostion. Despite the desire to demonstrate “leadership” and take action, the results of entropy can easily thwart these high-minded attempts to counteract geopolitical atrophy. Simply advocating that we arm the rebels is something, but without an explanation of how we would arm them, how we would maintain our influence, how we would check proliferation and misdirection, and how we would translate that into the military defeat of jihadist organizations, we should not accept at face value that this something is better than nothing.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. hezballer permalink
    February 27, 2013 2:52 pm

    Excellent article. The kind of real-world complexity rarely explored properly.

    BUT the counter-argument is that yes, it makes sense to arm the rebels – with all the difficulties you explained – solely to end the war as quickly as possible.

    Forget moralities, jihadi organizations such as al-Nusra thrive on war. It is during wartime they have peak legitimacy, recruiting, fundraising, and zeal. Every single one of these groups hemorrhages appeal once there is no simple black and white war to be fought – be it Mali, the FATA, Somalia wherever.

    Moreover, we’re talking about these things like they aren’t already happening. All the “worst-case” examples that were put forth last-year have come true. There are strong jihadi organizations, there are MANPADS, there is regional spillover (Lebanon is shaping up to be a disaster) and its all getting worse — there is also likely to be an Alawite genocide absolutely nobody is preparing for.

    End the war quickly and prepare for the post-war. The US strategic interest is in bleeding Iran, cutting Hezbollah’s supply line and now most importantly — containing chaos. For the first – you can always bleed Iran more, keep the war going to just to kill IRGC — but given the number of dead children I’ve seen on those YouTube videos I will can’t advocate that. For the second – Hezbollah is facing calamity even if the war ends today as long as it ends with Assad dead. Syria will be a Sunni state and it will not give little Shia Hezbollah which supported its slaughter much respite — the jihadists we’re so worried about will do that themselves, and probably first.

    The third is the most complex. At best Syria post-war is going to be a fragmented mix of militias – jihadists, secularists, criminals, boys with guns and angry broken people who have to give up revenge. Its going to make Libya look like a picnic. Without doing things like bringing back the vestiges of a state, and very quickly, Syria will destroy itself and everything around it, and we will deal with the consequences for a decade.

    So yes not, doing anything is a failure of leadership because it is to accept chaos and the competing proxy agendas of regional states in ways that will soon after negatively affect our interests.

    The most detached way would be to green light the Turks and give them what they need while trying to shut out the Gulf Arabs (because they’re assholes). The Turks may want to be the new Ataturks but I’ll take Erdogan’s version of Sunni Islam over the Wahhabists and Deobandis any day. Channel the weapons through them,drop some fucking intel out the sky for all it matters, end the war ASAP and for the love of God prepare for the post-war because you know heavens help if we actually learn something from our even recent history.

    • March 4, 2013 11:33 am

      If the goal is to end the war as quickly as possible, let the Gulf states foot the bill. You want to shut them out, but in all likelihood we need their cooperation to distribute weapons (by all indications, the Turkish government simply doesn’t have the capacity to run a large scale distribution operation in northern Syria at the present moment, let alone get access to the south). If the point is just to end the war ASAP then it doesn’t really matter who pays for the weapons or gives them out, so why us?

      But really, the bigger issue here is that ending the war quickly is not necessarily to check the influence of jihadist groups. We see this assertion that jihadist groups will die out without the war. I don’t see much proof of that. You say that they lose their vigor once the “black and white” war is over, but that’s exactly the opposite of what happened in Afghanistan. Deobandi groups such as the Taliban did not gain dominance until *after* the black-and-white, everyone-hates-the-commies phase of the war ended, and they gained popularity because the groups we helped armed and supply were useless warlords (and warlordism is something relying on foreign support contributes to, because why hold yourselves accountable to people who aren’t paying your bills anyway?)

      Indeed, since the end of Libya’s revolution, jihadists have started running around with little consequence, since the rest of the militias don’t care much to fight them because they’re not as odious as Gaddafi and they don’t threaten the system of local warlordism so long as the jihadists don’t interfere with other factions ability to extract rents from their own sectors. The jihadists, on the other hand, may become even more motivated and invigorated once the new government can be shown to have the hand of the evil Crusaders behind it. They already consider the post-war a more important phase than the war itself. So I think this assertion that the jihadists are just going to melt away once Assad is gone is incredibly dubious.

      Again, you talk of the “failure of leadership” and the need to build a state because the alternative is “accepting chaos” and “competing proxy agendas.” But simply arming the rebels does nothing to build a state (indeed, foreign suppliers reduce the need for rebel groups to build legitimacy and bases of support from domestic sources, Tilly and Giustozzi’s work has some good points about this dynamic), nor does it do anything to reduce chaos (arming rebel groups is not going to end warlordism or create a centralized government in Syria), and unless we arm a rebel group capable of crushing the jihadis and sealing Syria’s borders, and pay it so much money that it won’t take money from anyone else (fat chance), there are still going to be competing proxy interests, which may mean our new rebel buddies, like the ones in Libya, will decide to pocket the benefits of U.S. support but continue letting rival groups do their thing so long as it’s in areas they feel aren’t worth the hassle of enforcing control over anyway. So the best you can say for arming the rebels is that it ends Assad’s regime more quickly, that it makes the post-war any easier relies on a bunch of highly suspect assumptions and factors the U.S. has little influence over.

  2. March 7, 2013 9:19 pm

    I have put up a comment on this post at my blog.


  1. The War to Come in Syria « Blog
  2. A Cautionary Note on Increased Aid to Syrian Rebels | Dart-Throwing Chimp
  3. The War to Come in Syria - Unofficial Network
  4. The War to Come in Syria ~ Antiwar | Stop Making Sense
  5. Pakottava(n) diplomatian tarve | The Ulkopolitist

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