Does the CIA really have no idea about the nature of Syria's rebels?
It's hard to believe, but so say anonymous officials in a Washington Post article published yesterday.
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But if the recent history of Iraq is anything to go by, they're likely to become more important the longer the war drags on. And as in Iraq, a true sectarian bloodbath – with Alawites and perhaps Syria's Christian minority in the cross-hairs of Al Qaeda-style militants – is a real possibility.Skip to next paragraph
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Marc Lynch wrote earlier this week at Foreign Policy that whatever hopes there ever were for Syria's war to end in a negotiated settlement look to be well and truly over and that he expects the conflict to grind on dangerously.
Nor should the US be joining the dangerous game of arming the insurgency, which seems to be getting plenty of weapons from other sources. All of the risks of the proliferation of weapons into a fragmented insurgency of uncertain identity and aspirations, so blithely dismissed by the Op-Ed hawks, remain as intense as ever. There are still vanishingly few, if any, historical examples of such a strategy actually leading to a rapid resolution of a civil conflict, and all too many examples of it making conflicts longer and bloodier. Nor is it likely that providing weapons will provide the US with great influence over the groups they are. I see no reason to believe that armed groups will stay bought, or stay loyal, just because they were given weapons, or that the U.S. would be able to credibly threaten to cut off the flow of weapons if groups deemed essential to the battle used them in undesirable ways. As a general rule of thumb if you really think that a group might join al-Qaeda if you don't give them guns, you'd best not give them guns.
That paragraph deftly captures both what is unknown but more importantly what is known: The chance is real that Sunni jihadis deeply hostile to US interests will get their hands on weapons the US supplies to the uprising. In fact, I'll go further and say it's likely, an irony that should be lost on no one who watched officials insist for years that the US had to stay in Iraq to defeat precisely those kinds of people (though they're not exactly defeated in Iraq now either).
To be blunt, I think the US intelligence community knows this. The Washington Post article touches on this, with an "administration official" saying the US is concerned about blowback (never mind that the Post gets it wrong when it writes the US armed "militias in Afghanistan that later morphed into Al Qaeda;" the US actually armed different militant groups in that country's war against the Soviet Union).
Help and consequences
Fear of blowback, and being held responsible for any horrors that might follow a collapse of the Syrian regime in Syria, are precisely the things that are staying the administration's hands, not simply a lack of knowledge. Obama faces a policy and political question that has no good answer. A direct US invasion is off the table, doing nothing will allow a war that is taking a ruinous toll on civilians to drag on, and arming the rebels is likely to have very unpleasant consequences. And he has an election coming up.
The Obama administration is still hoping that Assad will fall soon. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described his fall as "inevitable" today and said the US "has to work closely" with rebels to draw up plans to secure the country's chemical weapons and to protect against reprisal killings on the day after.
"We're working across many of these important pillars of a transition that is inevitable," she said. "It would be better if it happened sooner both because fewer people would die or be injured, but also because it would perhaps prevent sectarian retribution."
Note the use of her word "perhaps" in that sentence.
None of this is to try to turn reality on its head and suggest Assad is the "good guy" and the rebels the "bad ones." The depredations of the Baath regime –the torture centers, the mass executions, the pervasive abuse of citizens for daring to speak their minds – are legendary. That history has contributed mightily to the tragic situation Syria finds itself in today.
But we know enough now to understand how truly dangerous Syria has become.