Raqqa Media Center/AP/File
Fighters from extremist Islamic State group march in Raqqa, Syria, in an undated photo published by the Raqqa Media Center, a Syrian opposition group.

Could arming the 'moderate' Syrian rebels have changed history?

That's a popular claim. But there's not much evidence to support it.

Hillary Clinton, campaigning in all but name for the Democratic Party nomination in the next presidential election, came out swinging against her old boss Barack Obama in an interview a few days ago. She suggested that the rise of the self-styled Islamic State – the Al Qaeda offshoot that has an army far more powerful than anything Osama bin Laden could ever muster in his heyday – would have been headed off if only President Obama had listened to her and armed the "moderate" Syrian rebels a few years ago.

She told The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg that: "The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad—there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle—the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,”

Is she right? Well, she could be. But it's simply unknowable. And the US track record in building "credible fighting forces" in the region of late isn't exactly pristine. Look no further than the recent collapse of the new Iraqi army – built, trained and equipped by the US over 7 years – in the north of the country for evidence of that. 

Confident assertions about how the horror of the Syrian civil war could have been avoided "if only" different choices had been made in 2011 and 2012 are all the rage these days, particularly with the Islamic State's seizure of major oil fields and cities in northern and western Iraq. In this telling, more palatable Syrian rebels would have won the war against Assad by now thanks to strong US backing.

But how far back should one go?

To President George W. Bush's decision along with Congress to impose fresh sanctions on Assad's Syria at the end of 2003? The US decision to invade Iraq earlier that year, accompanied by saber rattling out of Washington that Damascus was next on the regime change hit list? The joint Israeli-US decision to spurn a clearly worried Assad's offer of unconditional peace talks with Israel after Syria's military withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005? Assad's decision to allow international jihadis, whatever the risk of blowback some day, to flow into Iraq through his territory to tie down the bellicose Americans?

Or, perhaps, Assad should have bowed to Bush's demand that he transform Syria into a democracy. In 2005, free Palestinian elections and free Iraqi ones were held, and the US held both votes up as evidence that freedom was on the march across the region and Assad should get with the program, for the good of everyone. As it happened, neither of those elections – nor similarly free elections in Egypt in 2012 – transformed the Middle East for the better.

The simple problem with these "what ifs" is that, absent functioning time machines or the ability to conduct political experiments in parallel universes, it's impossible to say what might have been if a series of different forks in the road had been taken.

What we do know is that all along the way from Sept. 11, 2001, until today, confident claims were made about what the effect of US military action would be. And most of those claims were proven wrong by time and events. We also know that historically, outside intervention in civil wars typically prolongs them and makes them even bloodier. Why would Syria have been any different?

Charles Lister, who studies jihadi insurgencies at Brookings Doha Center, yesterday shared some skeptical thoughts on the claim that IS would not have become a force if the US had intervened militarily in Syria by arming the "good" rebels a few years ago.

In short, conditions would still have been ripe for the vast ambitions of IS and its self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who rose to prominence fighting the US in Iraq.

Who are the 'moderates,' anyway?

Former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford is in Clinton's camp on the question of arming Syrian rebels. "The State Department warned as early as 2012 that extremists in eastern Syria would link up with extremists in Iraq. We warned in 2012 that Iraq and Syria would become one conflict,” Ford told The Daily Beast. “We highlighted the competition between rebel groups on the ground, and we warned if we didn’t help the moderates, the extremists would gain.”

Ambassador Ford is still arguing that there are "moderate" rebels who can turn the tide. In a piece for Foreign Policy a few days ago he wrote "don't believe everything you read in the media: The moderate rebels of Syria are not finished."

His recommendation? He doesn't really say. But his piece strongly implies, without directly saying so, that the "moderates" should be given military support. He refers to the "moderate" rebels 14 times in his piece, and also supplies an expansive definition of the term as applied to Syrian rebels: "fighters who are not seeking to impose an Islamic state, but rather leaving that to a popular decision after the war ends." 

That excludes IS and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, but seems to include most everyone else. He specifically names only one "moderate" group in his piece: the Army of Islam led by Zahran Alloush, who Ford describes an an "ambitious Islamist commander."

Mr. Alloush's group has declared war on the IS and has clashed with it. All well and good. But his ability to hold on to any weapons the US might provide is no more guaranteed than that of the Free Syrian Army rebels the US was supplying last year, who had a depot of US-funded weapons seized by IS last September. Or the Iraqi Army for that matter, who abandoned serious amounts of US-supplied weaponry to IS when it cut and ran from northern Iraq this June.

And if Alloush were to hold on to them, what might he do some day? Joshua Landis, who studies Syria at the University of Oklahoma, wrote about Alloush last year. In Mr. Landis's analysis, "Zahran Alloush’s rhetoric and propaganda videos provide much insight into his world view, attitude toward Syria’s religious minorities, and vision for Syria’s future. The difference between his ideology and that of al-Qaida groups is not profound. Rather, it is one of shades of grey."

He analyzes a speech Alloush gave last year.

This is an anti-Shiite tirade and “bring-back-the-Umayyad-Empire” propaganda piece. It shows how sectarian Alloush is. He refers to Shiites, and reduces the Nusayris into this grouping, as “Majous”, or crypto-Iranians. “Majous” is the old term for pre-Islamic Persians or Zoroastrians. Arab Christians use the term in Christmas carols about the Magi, or “three kings from the Orient” (or east) who come to pay homage to Jesus—Magi are Persians or Easterners. Here it is an Islamic term of abuse meant to suggest that Alawites and Iranians not only have the wrong religion but also the wrong ethnicity—they are not Arabs, but crypto-Iranians. The term Majous is used in many rebel videos to refer to the Assad regime—”al-nizam al-majousi”—or simply to refer to Shiites (or Alawites) generally. It demonstrates how demonized the Alawites are in the propaganda of the new Islamic Front.

Zahran calls for cleansing Damascus of all Shiites and Nusayris. (“Nusayris” is the old term that referred to the Alawites prior to the adoption of “Alawite.” It is considered a term of abuse by Alawites.

One of the great strengths for Assad's regime is the fear within the country's Alawite minority (which he belongs to) that there will be a genocide if Islamist rebels win in Syria. Fear of a brutal form of Islamist government is also why so many of the country's Sunni Arab majority have continued to fight on the side of the government.

While men like Alloush may be more "moderate" than the head-choppers of IS, that doesn't mean they're going to be cuddly Jeffersonian democrats if they ever take power. Or that the US wouldn't be morally on the hook for any abuses they might pursue after a victory.

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