Insight and foresight from the global frontlines

Wayne White on arming Syria's rebels

A veteran intelligence analyst on Obama's decision.

A Free Syrian Army fighter prays near Aleppo.

Wayne White, a former senior State Department intelligence analyst for the Middle East, is someone I had the pleasure to get to know a little bit while I was covering the Iraq war between 2003-2008. In those years I'd talk to him every couple of months or so, and was glad I did.

Why? More often than not events bore out his analysis. So when he has something to say about the region, I pay attention.

Today, he worries about the Obama administration's decision to provide light arms to some elements of Syria's rebels, writing that it could lead to "more prolonged bloodletting and and destruction."

The Obama Administration finally has decided to provide lethal military support to the Syrian rebels. Yet, if Washington’s main focus is providing arms, a detailed review of just that one option suggests it probably would not be enough to prevent some additional regime successes. Moreover, giving arms only to so-called “vetted” (or moderate) rebel groups could aggravate tensions between disparate opposition camps, perhaps leading to rebel infighting. Some believe a US goal in supplying arms now (aside from bolstering the rebels) would be to re-balance the situation as a prelude to negotiations. Yet, getting the many combatants-—especially the rebels–to stand down is unlikely, so the outcome of limited arms shipments could be familiar: more prolonged bloodletting and destruction.

He argues that the US determination to limit arms to fighters that say they're opposed to the ultimate agenda of jihadis like Jabhat al-Nusra risks "being too selective militarily to have much overall impact" and points out that "rebel military vanguard has been radical Islamist in character - even al-Qaeda affiliated - for some time now." If Obama is hoping to put enough pressure on Assad to engage in meaningful peace talks, White expects the president will be disappointed.

It is no wonder it took the Obama Administration since late last summer to formulate a policy on lethal American support for Syria’s rebels, with limited regime chemical weapons use only partly driving yesterday’s decision. But even by mid-2012, supplying enough weapons to make a difference without providing them to extremists already had become an iffy proposition militarily. And with the opposition disunited, with some component groups bitterly opposing talks and rebels now regaining hope for victory over the regime with US help, useful diplomatic engagement also seems less promising than when Secretary John Kerry went to Moscow early last month.

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