Syrian rebels, in a stalemated conflict with the autocratic Bashar al-Assad, predictably are trying every trick to suck more help out of the United States. They are using the same tactic that developing nations used against U.S. policymakers during the Cold War to get more money and assistance: fear of takeover by extremists. The new bogeymen after 9/11, however, are radical Islamists instead of communists.
The argument goes something like this: Assad’s demise is inevitable, and post-Assad Syrians would be more friendly to the United States if it provides more assistance to their rebellion now. Using Western military assistance to Libya as a model, the fragmented Syrian rebels want the United States to provide arms for their forces, air cover for a no-fly zone to defend and protect rebel areas against Syrian government attacks by air, and offensive air power to complement insurgent ground attacks against the government. Right now, the Obama administration is providing only limited overt “non-lethal” communications and medical equipment and is covertly vetting opposition groups so that countries such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia can provide them weapons.
If the United States fails to provide such Libya-like assistance, the rebels’ argument is that Syrians will be enraged at the United States and that the civil war will last longer, both radicalizing Syrians to extremism — read: radical Islamism. Many conservatives and neoconservatives, trying to win points in the election against President Barack Obama (and perhaps because some actually believe it), are parroting the rebels’ line.
Obama, for now, is not taking the bait — likely because any escalation would run big risks before an election in which he still has the advantage. Of course, this calculus could change dramatically after the election, no matter who wins.
However, better reasons exist for Obama — or Romney, should he be elected — to avoid being baited into entrapment in the Syrian civil war. The most important reason to eschew Libya-like escalation is not risk before an election but that the ultimate outcome might resemble that of … well … Libya.
Before and during Western military intervention in Libya, the question was always asked, “What will replace the autocratic dictator?” The interventionists assured us that anything was better than the evil Moammar Gadhafi (who had been demonized by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s but had spent the last decade trying to mend fences with United States, including giving up his nuclear program and helping the U.S. torture terror suspects). Really? We now have a weak post-Gadhafi Libyan government that has to rely on friendly, armed militias — among the many running around Libya — for protection. The post-Gadhafi chaos is so bad that a mob and a radical Islamist militia attacked the U.S. embassy, and the militia apparently killed the ambassador. Contrary to the aforementioned argument made by the Syrian rebels, American assistance to Libyan rebels didn’t bulletproof the United States against such horrible eventualities. Such an attack would probably not have happened under Gadhafi’s iron rule. Now, the security situation in Libya is so bad that the FBI was long delayed in going from Tripoli to Benghazi to investigate the diplomatic crime scene and could only do a brief visit guarded by U.S. Special Operations forces.
As in Libya, the key question has always been what will replace Assad. Yet post-Gadhafi Libya may look good compared to any post-Assad Syria. In Libya, many tribes have rivalries with each other, and their militias are armed to the teeth. In Syria, the ethno-sectarian lines are similar to those of post-Saddam Iraq — and we all know what a bloody mess that was. Already in Syria we have a similar raging conflict between the Sunni opposition and the Shi’ite (Alawite) ruling order. Meanwhile, the Syrian Kurds, with the help of the Iraqi Kurds, are stockpiling arms for a second civil war after Assad is toppled in the ongoing first civil war. The Syrian Kurds are especially frightened of the majority rebel Sunnis.
Any U.S. military assistance to topple Assad — whether the provision of arms to the rebels or active military intervention — will merely fuel the likely subsequent civil war. Even worse, if the vetting of rebel militias obtaining weapons is imperfect — which it is likely to be in this chaotic situation — the United States could end up inadvertently aiding the radical Islamist groups it so fears. We must remember that al-Qaeda was spawned from U.S. aid to the “Afghan freedom fighters” in the 1980s, which seemed like a great idea at the time, to give the Soviet Union its Vietnam, but ended in the first mass casualties on U.S. soil from foreign attack since the War of 1812.
But the inadvertent disastrous consequences of U.S. meddling in Afghanistan during the 1980s and Iraq and Libya more recently (which probably haven’t even played out fully yet) don’t seem to have dissuaded the interventionists one bit from advocating another adventure in Syria. After the election, tragically, we may see that “non-lethal” assistance is only the camel’s nose under the tent to an escalation of U.S. interference in Syria.