When Reasonable Lungs are too Tired to Shout Anymore: On Arming the Syrian Rebels

15 Jun

After months of stumbling toward some sort of military intervention, the Obama administration has finally fallen across the finish line and decided to arm the Syrian rebels.  This decision, for the most part, initiated a massive collective groan in the American foreign policy community, and once we’d all come to terms with the stupidity of the decision, we, as nature dictates, started to argue about why it happened.

The reasons for the collective groan are obvious, and there have been no shortage of voices that have sketched out in vivid detail why arming the rebels (or other proposed military options) is a boneheaded idea.  Firstly, there isn’t a long-term game plan.  Arming the opposition will moderately augment the rebels’ military strength, but not enough to topple Assad.  According to past experiences with arming rebels (Afghanistan), these arms will eventually get into the wrong hands.  Other proposed options, such as a no-fly zone (NFZ), or cratering government runways, similarly won’t do enough to topple Assad or stop the slaughter of civilians.  No one’s seriously talking about military intervention, which is the only option with long-term logic, even if that logic is also fatally flawed.  Secondly, all of these “strategies” point back to the larger issue of what the goal of American policy in Syria is.  There are three possible options: civilian protection, toppling Assad, or intensifying a proxy war that taxes Iran and Hezbollah at minimal cost.  It’s obviously not the first.  And it’s not the second for the reasons explained above.  Daniel Drezner has argued it’s the third, but that explanation falls short too.  If Obama really saw Syria as the perfect place to engage in a proxy war with Iran and Hezbollah, why didn’t he do it earlier?  Why wait until chemical weapons use is impossible to deny (it was clear as day in April)?

Ultimately, arming the rebels is not the result any coherent, grand strategy.  Rather, it is the consequence of moral and militaristic pressures on the Obama administration.   Diverse sources, from John McCain to Anne-Marie Slaughter to the State Department, have nudged the White House to “do something”.  These calls to action, lacking any strategic legs to stand on, rely on two strategies: moral, emotional appeals and misleading statements regarding America’s credibility.  The first is the most common.  Moral appeals on Syria minimize crucial strategic concerns in favor emotional parallels with past atrocities and empty declarations on the moral necessity of action.  While less common, some conservative politicians and pundits have thrown down the credibility gauntlet: if America does not intervene in the face of such atrocities, it will lose respect among fellow nations.  This ignores the high probability that military intervention in Syria, in whatever form, will fail, and that there is a strong global consensus against American intervention in the Middle East post-Iraq.  The lack of any serious strategy means fractures within the decision-making apparatus (which exhibits some of the characteristics Pearlman describes) have produced exceedingly bad policy at an even worse time.  The future is bleak for Syria.

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