Stay Out of Syria’s Civil War
The 5-year bloodbath that is the Syrian Civil War is becoming worse every single day. Hundreds of thousands of innocents have been killed as Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s army and his Russian allies pummel territory controlled by rebel groups that seek Assad’s ouster. Add to the mix the barbaric Islamic State that has a Syrian city, Raqqa, as its de facto capital, and you have the perfect storm situated in what is already the most volatile region in the world, the Middle East.
And the efforts of President Obama, who wants Assad to abdicate power, to intervene in the civil war—at least indirectly—will just compound the problem. Or have they already? For years, Obama has authorized the Pentagon and the CIA to undertake programs that train and equip Syrian rebels fighting Assad’s military. And what does the Obama administration have to show for it? Open warfare between rebel forces backed by the Pentagon and those by the CIA ensued. Al-Nusra Front, a rebel group formerly affiliated with Al-Qaeda, plundered US stockpiles of weaponry in territory once controlled by the Free Syrian Army, a “moderate” group. And so on, and so on.
Speaking of Al-Nusra Front, it just recently cut its connections with Al-Qaeda and changed its name to Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham. Despite the name change, State Department spokesman John Kirby; Director of National Intelligence James Clapper; and US Army General Joseph Votel, commander of US Central Command, all agree that the group is a terrorist organization, and they are rightly treating it as such. However, the dissociation and the name change have prompted experts to suggest that this affords Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham a greater chance to unify with other Syrian rebel groups, including so-called moderates. This undoubtedly is a huge problem for US policy in the region.
Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham’s cooperation with US-backed Syrian rebels presents a quandary for policymakers in Washington. Even though Obama is opposed to the Assad regime, he favors arming rebels who also oppose groups espousing Islamic extremism, like ISIS. Considering an ever-shifting state of the battlefield, it’s not clear how the US could—with high accuracy—ensure that US-backed rebels actually abstain from joining forces with radical groups who share anti-Assad sentiments, and guarantee that the rebels do not abandon their own large quantities of American munitions. It is easy then to conclude that with US arms being shipped to “moderate” rebels, there is a very high likelihood that Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, as it intermingles with various rebel factions, will in one way or the other acquire US weapons and use them for its own nefarious purposes down the road.
Interestingly enough, Al-Nusra Front, Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham’s predecessor, was named as one of the greatest long-term threats facing the world. In fact, a January 2016 report issued by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) concluded that Al-Nusra Front “is much more dangerous to the US than [ISIS] in the long run.” The report also asserted that Al-Nusra Front’s “defeat and destruction must be one of the highest priorities of any strategy to defend the United States and Europe from Al-Qaeda attacks.” As previously noted, high-ranking US officials believe that Al-Nusra Front’s name change does not alter Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham’s ideological goals. Nevertheless, however well-intentioned it may be, the Obama administration’s mission of arming certain rebel groups that can act as American proxies could end up hurting US interests and security in the long run. The administration should entertain the real possibility that the US will end up arming its own enemies and take serious action based on that assessment.
When it comes to defending the homeland, the US president needs to have his primary focus on threats that directly affect national security. While Assad is a horrible, murderous dictator who happens to be allied with another dictator of Russian descent, choosing sides in the Syrian Civil War is misguided. The US cannot definitively separate the “good guys” from the “bad guys,” and American arms may end up falling into the wrong hands, exacerbating security risks in the long term. While American humanitarian assistance should be provided to desperate populations as needed, the US should, with respect to Iraq and Syria, instead focus the overwhelming majority of its military resources on combating ISIS. It is an unambiguous enemy, having shown with great force and terror its clear intentions of murdering Americans around the world and influencing others to do the same. But as the US is still committing resources to a civil war that it should stay out of, that’s less firepower that could be used to crushing an enemy far worse than Assad.
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