U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced last week that the United States was pledging $60 million in non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels battling to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. is also providing $60 million in aid to the political wing of the anti-Assad coalition to allow for improvements in the quality of life for citizens living in areas captured and held by rebel forces. Such aid is highly unlikely to have a major outcome on the ongoing battle for control of Syria between the Assad regime and the opposition. Unfortunately, the Syrian morass provides very few palatable policy choices for the U.S. foreign policy establishment.
The debate over whether to arm the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has already taken hold in Washington, with leading Republicans criticizing the Obama administration for what they perceive as a lack of leadership on the President’s part. For its part, the Obama administration has remained cautious about any actual or perceived U.S. intervention in Syria ever since the first wave of the “Arab Spring” hit Syria’s shores in early 2011. There are several obvious risks associated with arming the Syrian opposition that the Obama administration has sought to avoid from the outset. The first is that such arms might find their way into the hands of jihadists, whose numbers have increased as the conflict in Syria has evolved and become more militarized over time. The New York Times has noted that classified assessments from the U.S. intelligence community indicate that most of the arms being shipped to Syrian rebels by Saudi Arabia and Qatar are winding up in the hands of jihadists. A second risk is that shipping arms to the opposition would simply prolong and intensify the cycle of violence and possibly cause the conflict to spread beyond Syria’s borders to neighboring states such as Lebanon. Such fears have become especially poignant as the Syrian conflict has devolved into a sectarian civil war between a mostly Sunni Muslim opposition and a regime drawn from and supported by an Alawite minority population. Other arguments against arming the Syrian opposition include the belief that it would have little actual military effect on the ground, given the type of weaponry the U.S. would most likely export to the opposition and the heavy weaponry, including air assets, possessed by Assad’s forces.
For the White House, Syria seems to be the perfect Catch-22 situation. So far, the cautious approach adopted by the Obama administration to the Syrian crisis has yielded little in the way of positive results. The conflict has already degenerated into a sectarian civil war and jihadists are increasingly taking a larger role in the conflict as it’s become radicalized in spite of U.S. concerns. At least for now, the conflict seems to be contained largely to Syria, although there have been some sporadic outbursts of fighting in Lebanon between pro-and anti-Assad forces there. Likewise, it has been reported that the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’i militant group Hizballah has been actively participating in the Syrian civil war on behalf of the Assad regime. And it’s already clear that other regional actors have become involved in one way or another in the conflict, including Iran and the Gulf states. However, there is certainly no guarantee that arming the rebels would improve the situation and there are very good reasons to believe that doing so might make matters worse.
Given U.S. war fatigue resulting from its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S.’s cautious stance towards Syria seems reasonable, if probably ineffective. Public opinion would also seem to back the President’s reluctance to further involve the U.S. in Syria’s civil war. But there is no way to tell whether what appears to be prudence in the near term will prove the correct course of action over time. This is especially true when one looks at the devastation this conflict has brought to the people of Syria.