Last week's revelations that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey had supported a proposal by then CIA Director David Petraeus and outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to arm moderate Syrian rebels have galvanized the Syria policy debate. The Syria policy community, which for the most part these days yearns for more aggressive American action, is outraged that the White House overruled this plan. But the real story is that, for once, the inter-agency process actually worked: It vetted and discarded a scheme which rigorous analysis concluded wouldn't work.
The failure of American diplomacy to end Syria's parade of horrors has rightfully driven the policy community to search for a useful alternative. But arming the rebels was always a classic "Option C." Every bureaucrat knows the trick of offering three options -- one to do nothing, one so outlandish that it is easily rejected, and then one that takes the seemingly sensible middle ground, allowing the decision-maker the illusion that they are resolving the problem.
Whether or not Option C has any chance of actually working is almost an afterthought. For an example of how this works, see "the Afghan Surge," which lacked even a plausible theory of how it might work. In Syria, the most likely effect of arming the rebels is simply to set up the president for another decision point six months later as the battle rages and the rebels seem unable to close the deal. And at that point, the president would face an even starker decision: Option A, give up and be tarred forever for cutting and running; Option B, full-scale military intervention, which of course would be rejected; and Option C, escalation through some combination of no-fly zones, a bombing campaign, and safe areas.
When this debate began in earnest one year ago, I predicted that policy would move toward arming the rebels as the easiest way to appear to be "doing something" -- even if nobody really believed that it would work. It does not surprise me that Petraeus, Clinton, or Panetta would gravitate toward this option. It surprises me even less to find their preferred policy stance, once it was thwarted, would magically appear in the media. What does surprise me is that the White House managed to cut off this option at the pass.
And don't get it twisted -- arming the rebels was "Option C." Sen. John McCain, who has been leading the charge to intervene in Syria, said this summer that arming the rebels was a good step, but "this alone will not be decisive." In fact, he went on to warn that providing weapons "may even just prolong [the conflict]."
McCain's preference was to "make U.S. airpower available, along with that of our allies, as part of an international effort to defend safe areas in Syria and to prevent Assad's forces from harassing [the rebels]." Air power, he believed, could carve out an area inside Syria where the opposition could organize itself, and then use it as a staging area to expand opposition control across the country -- much like how the Libyan rebels used the eastern city of Benghazi as their base. The Pentagon, however, had little interest in such a scheme.
Michael Doran and Salman Shaikh last week in FP put forward the strongest case to arm the rebels, which is well worth the read. But even for them, was this really their first, best option -- the one they believe will meet with the greatest chance of success? Along with two colleagues from Brookings, this is what Doran and Shaikh had to say 11 months ago:
While history is replete with states arming opposition groups to weaken their rivals, the precedents for the opposition succeeding quickly in regime change are fewer.... In most cases, supporting an opposition ties down a country's forces and fosters instability but does not topple the regime.... The United States might still arm the opposition even knowing they will probably never have sufficient power, on their own, to dislodge the Asad network. Washington might choose to do so simply in the belief that at least providing an oppressed people with some ability to resist their oppressors is better than doing nothing at all, even if the support provided has little chance of turning defeat into victory.
Alternatively, the United States might calculate that it is still worthwhile to pin down the Asad regime and bleed it, keeping a regional adversary weak, while avoiding the costs of direct intervention.... [T]he U.S. and allied association with the opposition would make it difficult to walk away from them and from Syria if, as is likely, they continue to suffer set-backs or slaughter at the hands of regime forces. Thus pressure to adopt more costly options would grow.
In August 2012, their Brookings colleague Ken Pollack warned, "helping the opposition ‘win' might end up looking something like Afghanistan in 2001." Pollack was honest about the implications of a strategy of indirect assistance to the rebels: "[O]ur choice will almost certainly be between picking a winner and leading a multilateral intervention. Chances are we will start with the former, and if that fails to produce results, we will shift to the latter." Indeed.
Those pessimistic conclusions match the academic consensus that "civil wars with outside involvement typically last longer, cause more fatalities, and are more difficult to resolve through negotiations." This is particularly the case when there are multiple potential external backers with conflicting objectives, as is the case in Syria. Hence the constant refrain that U.S. reticence is allowing Gulf money -- which goes overwhelmingly to Islamist groups -- to carry the day.
It's difficult to produce a single example in modern history of a strategy of arming rebels actually succeeding. Please, please, don't offer the example of U.S. support for the Afghan jihad in the 1980s -- because I'll just see that and raise you a collapsed state, warlordism, rise of the Taliban, and al Qaeda. Meanwhile, there are plenty of examples of the overt or covert provision of arms to a rebel group prolonging and intensifying conflicts, and lots of cases of rebel groups happily taking our money and guns to "fight communists" (or whatever) and then doing whatever they like with them. That doesn't mean that such a strategy couldn't work in Syria, but history is most definitely not on its side.
That was then -- what about now? Many very sharp analysts, ranging from Steven Heydemann to Salman Shaikh, argue that with militarization a reality, the United States should manage the process, accelerating the endgame and gaining influence over the Syrian opposition by taking a leading role in directing the flow of arms. As I pointed out a few weeks ago, this case has grown stronger with time: Some of the key reasons for avoiding arming the rebels no longer apply, since the negative effects of militarization have already largely manifested.
Robin Yassin-Kassab may have a case that arming the moderates has never really been tried, but there's no question that arms have flooded in and the Syrian arena has become fully militarized. There's not much of a political process to save: undecided Syrian constituencies have already retreated back into the embrace of the regime, arms are flowing, the men with guns are calling the shots, and a new political economy of insurgency has taken root.
In this context, a coordinated flow of arms is superior to an uncoordinated flow of arms. But I doubt that an American decision to get into that game would do much good. Offering weapons and money might buy influence in the moment, but they don't buy love or guarantee the alignment of values or priorities. The reporting from inside Syria offers a consistent portrait of emergent warlordism, with local commanders eager to take bids from external patrons. Arming and funding militias basically means renting them until a better offer comes along, as suggested by the endless parade of articles reporting Syrian groups turning to Islamists because they are better financed or better armed.
Sure, the United States could enter this crowded market -- but why would anyone expect Washington to dominate it, or to fundamentally change its patterns? It won't make the Islamist groups tied to al Qaeda disappear -- they were drawn to the opportunity to wage jihad, and they certainly aren't going to leave just because America decides to muscle onto their turf. It is also not obvious why U.S.-provided weapons would be better or more attractive than Gulf weapons, especially if ours come with human rights guidelines and inconvenient political limitations.
Everyone wants to find a way to end the killing in Syria. But there's very little reason to believe that American arming of the rebels would achieve that goal. President Barack Obama's administration was right to focus instead on sorting out the opposition leadership, and trying to establish it as an effective political umbrella rather than turning on an arms pipeline to the rebels.
That's not to say there isn't more the United States can be doing. I do think the administration missed a major opportunity to rapidly funnel significant humanitarian aid and non-lethal support through the National Coalition it laboriously helped construct, in order to give them something to offer Syrians on the ground. Fixing that should be a priority. The ever-escalating disaster in Syria cries out for more effective international diplomacy, vastly more humanitarian support for refugees and the displaced, and more work to strengthen the political structures of the opposition. Efforts should be focused on such initiatives, rather than on a poorly conceived Option C which drags the United States deeper into an abyss with no real prospect of victory.