The List

5 Rules for Arming Rebels

Before going to war in Syria, the Obama administration should heed the lessons of history.

It was for several good and solid reasons that U.S. President Barack Obama's administration long resisted pressures to intervene more forcefully in Syria's civil war. To start with, there is the sheer complexity of a conflict at the intersection of religious, ethnic, regional, and global politics, as illustrated by the plain fact that the most Westernized of Syrians (including its Christians) support the Assad government that the United States seeks to displace, while its enemies are certainly not America's friends and, indeed, include the most dangerous of Muslim extremists. But no matter: After two years of restraint, the administration -- having decided to send "direct military assistance" to the rebels -- has chosen sides and is now choosing sides within sides.

By now, after failed attempts at managing complexity in Iraq and Afghanistan, all should soberly recognize that any successful intervention requires the terrible I-win, you-lose simplicity of war. When that is absent, so too is success. In the end, regardless of the costs in blood and treasure of U.S. efforts -- costs that in this case also include a greater enmity with Russia -- it is still likely that all sides will blame the American infidel for anything that displeases them, as in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, and Libya. Neither complexity nor the inevitable accusations of sinister American motives (greed for oil, war on Islam, or both) can be helped, but the Obama administration has stepped forward anyway. Even if conditions on the ground in Syria virtually exclude the possibility of a good outcome, the following five rules -- derived from bitter experience in arming other rebels (some of it personal) -- could at least serve to minimize the damage.

Rule 1: Figure out who your friends are.

The first rule, politically, is to identify one's allies. When Obama finally, officially, makes the announcement that Washington is arming the rebels, it must include the key phrases: "We are acting with our allies in the region" or, better, "our close allies in the region and beyond it." But once the obligatory words are spoken, it is essential that all U.S. personnel all the way down the chain of command be fully aware of the brutal truth that explains the survival of Bashar al-Assad's regime: America's "allies in the region" are remarkably ineffectual, in spite of every apparent advantage. Early on, Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani proclaimed his total support for the "Syrian people," sending money and buying weapons at ridiculous prices (and delivering very few). And though his armed forces are small and poorly placed to provide any combat support, he does have billions of dollars at his disposal that he can and does spend on every passing whim. The same goes for the Saudis, who are much less noisy than the Qataris in supporting the rebels but are the real leaders of the Sunni crusade against Assad -- and they too are not short of funds.

Yet in spite of the most ample promises by Qatar and the Saudis, Syrian refugees in Jordan have been living in misery -- there are even persistent reports of the sale of child brides by desperate families. Likewise, the actual flow of weapons to the rebels has been notably meager. In neither case it is just a matter of simple avarice, but rather reflects the operational incapacity of both governments. For more than a year, Washington has been content to allow others to funnel weapons and money, but with Assad's recent victories against the rebels, Obama was forced into action. The Saudi and Qatari rulers just do not have honest, efficient officials whom they can rely on to distribute money or weapons wisely. In the bad old days, the Saudis would just hand over sacks of $100 bills to Osama bin Laden, before he turned against them. Now, too, they would willingly hand over sacks of bank notes to a chief if there were one, but they simply cannot field officials on the ground who can choose between the great number of Syrian claimants, given U.S. injunctions not to arm the most extreme jihadists, including those who accept the "al-Nusra" label.

A much greater surprise is Turkey's all-round incapacity. Early on, with characteristic bombast, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan more or less ordered Assad to stop shooting and start talking. With 75 million inhabitants, a fast-growing economy, a million men under arms, and a 510-mile border with Syria, Turkey should have been the dominant power in the confrontation. But instead of being intimidated into surrender, or just moderation, the Assad regime publicly ridiculed Erdogan and Turkish imperial pretensions, denounced Turkey's Islamist government as nothing more than Sunni fanatics, and then proceeded to shoot down a stray Turkish jet fighter before repeatedly sending artillery rounds into Turkish towns. The Turkish response to this insult and attack? Nothing. And that is what Turkey will do as an ally of the United States in Syria: nothing.

It turns out that the country's 15 million to 20 million Bektashis and other Alevis, long cruelly persecuted by Sunni rulers, oppose any action that would strengthen the Sunnis of Syria. In addition, there are also some 2 million Alawites along the border with Syria, mostly in Hatay, the piece of Syria annexed by Turkey in 1939, who vehemently support their compatriot Assad. Then there are the Kurds who predominate in the provinces along the border with Syria and automatically oppose any action by the Turkish armed forces they have so long resisted. On top of that, Turkey's ruling AKP Islamist party has used conspiracy charges, arising from the supposedly vast Ergenekon plot, against dozens of very senior officers to immobilize the armed forces, which are guilty in the party's eyes of both defending secularism and menacing democracy. They have succeeded all too well, but this leaves Turkey as a non-power -- a richly ironic outcome given the solemn debates of recent years on whether Ankara is a regional power, a middle power, or a neo-Ottoman power as Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu kept claiming. The world has discovered that Turkey is not even a small power. The bottom line is that the United States will not only lack an ally in fighting Assad, but will also have to operate in a hostile environment, given the many people in Turkey who support the Syrian regime -- some of them ready and willing to attack any U.S. personnel they encounter, or at least help Assad's agents in trying to kill Americans.

Rule 2: Be prepared to do all the work.

Given these "allies," the United States will have to do the lifting -- and not just the heavy part. There should be no illusions now that anyone will be of much help, with the possible exception of whatever money can be extracted from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. That, in turn, raises the issue of which Americans should do the dirty work of funneling weapons. Always bureaucratically adept, even if operationally incompetent in far too many cases, the CIA already has the Washington end of the action. But if weapons are to be supplied, it is essential to call on the only Americans who can tell the difference between Sunni bad guys who only want to oppress other Syrians and the really bad guys who happen to be waging their global jihad in Syria. What's needed are true experts, people who really speak the region's Arabic: the regular U.S. Army and Marine Corps officers who successfully sponsored and then effectively controlled the Sunni tribal insurgents in Iraq whose "awakening" defeated the jihadists who were attacking U.S. troops. Some of them are already involved in supporting the rebels under Joint Special Operations Command, but if the mission were expanded it would be a good idea to call for volunteers from the reservists who did the same job in Iraq.

Rule 3: Don't give away anything that you would want to have back.

That includes expertise in identifying and handling any chemical weapons that might be encountered, as well as the supply of any portable anti-aircraft weapons. There are likely already a great number of them in Syria, some of them much more effective than the old 9K32 "Strela-2" or SAM-7 models that have already been used by terrorists against civilian aircraft. Whatever happens, the U.S. counterpart to these weapons -- the current version of the FIM-92 Stinger -- cannot be supplied, as it is even more lethal than the original that was used to such great success against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Indeed, the Syrian government's use of aircraft for bombing rebel targets might have to be deterred by threats alone -- under-the-table threats, of course, given the impossibility of obtaining Russian or Chinese consent at the U.N. Security Council. Any U.S. intercepts of Syrian aircraft would amount to a drastic escalation, but Assad knows full well that American strike aircraft could reach Syrian airspace in minutes from nearby bases, including from the British staging facilities in Cyprus.

Rule 4: Do not invite an equal and opposite response by another great power.

The prospect of any such drastic escalation immediately brings us to Rule 4, which might as well be Rule 1, or Über 1: Nothing should be done, not even the supply of the smallest of small arms, without a serious, full-dress effort to find some understanding with Russia, for which Assad is not one ally among many, but arguably its only extant military ally. After being cheated over Libya, where a no-fly zone was illegally converted into a free-bombing zone, the Russians will want compensation in Syria if they cooperate at all, including a continuing if diminished role for Assad. That will not satisfy Sunni supremacists but should satisfy Washington, for which neither a rebel defeat nor a rebel victory constitutes a successful outcome. In exchange for the keeping of Assad, the Russians would have to secure the essential quid pro quo for Washington: a clean and final break with Iran and Hezbollah -- which, by the way, would satisfy the Saudis too, as well as Israel.

Rule 5: Lay some ground rules for the endgame.

The fifth and final rule reflects some more bitter experience: Whatever happens, but especially if the regime collapses, it is imperative to maintain a sharp distinction between the government that must be purged and the state that must be preserved. This includes institutions like the regular army and police, as well as the Ministry of Agriculture and other such agencies. Under the Assads, decades of nominally Baathist (but actually secular) rule favored the rise of Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Ismailis in the bureaucracy. If U.S. arms prove to be the factor that gives Sunni rebels victory, and if Sunnis fire them all, the Syrian state will disintegrate -- with all the disastrous consequences experienced in Iraq. Unpaid soldiers and police become bandits and insurgents; public services and utilities, including water and electricity, go to pot; chaos and sectarianism flourish. As it is, Syria after Assad is likely to fragment into ethnic ministates, but if its state apparatus is also dissolved, the ensuing anarchy will be especially miserable and uncontrollably violent, with plenty of evil consequences for all near and far. The last thing the Levant needs is another Somalia, or several of them. The rebels must be told from the start that if they start firing state employees en masse (as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan), all aid will be cut off.

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The Obama administration has displayed prudent restraint in dealing with Syria until now. After recent regime successes against the rebels, it can convincingly argue (despite the somewhat inconclusive and murky assertion that Assad's use of chemical weapons has now been verified) that it must provide some help to the rebels simply to deny a victory to Iran and Hezbollah. Even so, one hopes that it retains its prudence -- and keeps these five rules in mind.

Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images

The List

Myanmar's Moment?

Eight reasons to be optimistic about Southeast Asia's rising tiger. 

Myanmar is attracting a lot of attention these days. The visit by President Thein Sein to Washington in May, the first by a leader of Myanmar since 1966, included a meeting with President Barack Obama -- marking an emphatic end to the years of international isolation. But it is not only Myanmar's change of political direction that is exciting interest. Thein Sein's itinerary also included a U.S. Chamber of Commerce fete with top American executives. Economic opportunity has U.S. and Western multinationals licking their lips. International investors are actively circling this largely untapped market. And the doors are wide open. On June 5-7, Myanmar plays host to the World Economic Forum, the first leading international gathering of senior decision-makers from industry, government, academia, and civil society to be held there.

But it's easy to make the case that the current hype on Myanmar has run ahead of the reality.

After all, between 1900 and 1990, gross domestic product (GDP) growth appears to have increased at no more than 1.6 percent a year -- half of the rate of the rest of the world. And per capita GDP did not increase at all in this period, while globally it quadrupled. As a result, today Myanmar accounts for only 0.2 percent of Asia's GDP -- which, for comparison, put's the entire country's economy about that of Omaha, Nebraska or Fresno, California. Moreover, incomes are still low. Only 2.5 million, or 4 percent, of Myanmar's citizens today have enough income to spend on discretionary items -- globally the average is 35 percent. Unlike other countries in Asia, Myanmar has become more, not less, dependent, on agriculture. Agriculture's share of GDP rose from 35 percent in 1965 to 44 percent in 2010, a period during which the share fell sharply across Asia to an average of only 12 percent. Meanwhile, other indicators still lag: the U.N. Development Programme estimates that the average citizen in Myanmar has only four years of schooling. And labor productivity is only 30 percent that of neighboring Asian countries. If productivity growth remains on the path of the past 20 years, annual GDP growth could be less than 4 percent.

Despite this low starting point, there's much to be optimistic about in Myanmar. Here are eight reasons why the country could be on the cusp of a new boom:

1. There's no need to reinvent the wheel  

A tried and tested development path already exists. The experience of other emerging Asian economies shows that it is possible for Myanmar to grow very quickly if it diversifies from agriculture, urbanizes, and makes significant productivity gains within different sectors. Incomes in developing economies are rising faster than at any other point in history. Globally, the average time it takes to double per capita GDP at purchasing power parity from $1,300 -- Myanmar's level today -- has dropped dramatically. During the British Industrial Revolution, starting in the 18th century, it took 150 years to see such gains in living standards; by the 1960s it was down to 47 years; since 2000, it's dropped to 17 years. In booming Asian economies like Vietnam and China, it has taken just 11 and 12 years respectively to double average incomes.   

2. Close to big and growing markets

Myanmar is fortunate in its location. It borders Bangladesh, China, India, Laos, and Thailand which puts it in close proximity to a market of more than half a billion people. Many of these markets are growing rapidly, giving Myanmar a large export opportunity at a time when Asia's economy is integrating. ASEAN's free trade zone is due to start at the end of 2015. In addition, it will be within a five-hour plane ride of a market of two and a half billion potential tourists by 2025.  

3. Abundant natural resources

Myanmar may have suffered under a military dictatorship for decades, but it's been blessed with plenty: from oil to timber, gas to water. Although the onset of Asian shale could mean falling prices for Myanmar's natural gas, it remains the case that its reserves are large. BP estimates that proven natural gas reserves total 7.8 trillion cubic feet, the 46th largest reserves in the world. The country also has oil reserves, though the scale is difficult to estimate because exploration has been so limited. Myanmar accounts for 90 percent of the world's production of jade and is one of the world's top producers of gems including rubies and sapphires. And the country boasts the 25th largest area of agricultural land in the world.

4. It's not just resources

Our research suggests that seven key sectors of the economy -- manufacturing, agriculture, infrastructure, energy and mining, tourism, financial services, and telecoms -- could quadruple the size of Myanmar's economy from $45 billion today to more than $200 billion in 2030 and create 10 million new jobs outside agriculture. The number of consumers with discretionary spending could rise from 2.5 million to 19 million, tripling consumer spending to $100 billion. To achieve this feat, Myanmar would have to more than double labor productivity growth from 2.7 percent today to 7 percent -- but that's not unprecedented within Asia (for example, Thailand and China have achieved such levels of growth). If it does so, the economy could conceivably grow at 8 percent a year.

5. A relatively large workforce

Myanmar has another useful resource -- its people. The country has an estimated working-age population of 46 million. And low wages could make it an attractive destination for manufacturing. But to power growth, they will need more semi-skilled and skilled labor.  Thankfully, there's a ready solution to kick start this process -- a diaspora of between three and five million people, many of whom have built up skills and experience working overseas. Persuade some of these citizens to come home, and that would bring an immediate injection of skills and dynamism into the economy. Even if they remain overseas, they could potentially become major investors in Myanmar's economy. Consider this: overseas Chinese contributed about 70 percent of China's foreign direct investment between 1985 and 2000.

6. From fields to cities

Myanmar remains an overwhelmingly agricultural and rural economy -- another growth opportunity. Emerging economies that have diversified away from agriculture and whose populations have migrated to urban environments have posted rapid growth. While the rest of Asia has been urbanizing at unprecedented speed and scale, only about 13 percent of Myanmar's citizens live in large cities. Aside from the two large cities Yangon and Mandalay, only eight cities in Myanmar have reached population levels exceeding 200,000, compared with 32 such cities in Thailand and 16 in Vietnam. But if Myanmar is to increase the speed of its development, it needs to begin to support a shift into manufacturing that will bring people into its cities -- a migration that would power growth, incomes, and jobs.

7. Harnessing the digital age  

Myanmar is embarking on its economic transformation at a time when mobile and Internet technologies are ubiquitous and more affordable than ever. Studies have shown a direct correlation between technology, innovation, and economic growth.  For instance, in a study of 120 low- and middle-income countries, the World Bank found that a 10 percent increase in broadband penetration between 1980 and 2002 correlated with an additional 1.38 percent in GDP growth. Myanmar could well be the test case for the power of digital technology to turbo-charge economies. By harnessing technology in a coordinated effort across the key areas of government, education, health care, banking, and retail, Myanmar could potentially become one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

8. Friends in high places                                              

From Brussels to Washington, Western leaders have stepped forward to support Myanmar's fledgling democracy, ending years of isolation. Meanwhile, the country is garnering considerable support from multilateral institutions and donors: last year, the World Bank resumed lending to the country and opened an office in Yangon. Economic sanctions are being lifted progressively, foreign governments have opened embassies after many years of absence, and dozens of trade delegations have visited Myanmar in the past year alone. Reintegration into the global community will have untold dividends.

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And yet Myanmar's years of economic under-performance are a double-edged sword. On one hand, the government has to address virtually every aspect of the economy -- as well as sustain political reform and resolve lingering ethnic conflict, both of which make investors nervous -- at once. On the other, there is a virtually blank slate on which to write the nation's new chapter. Myanmar can build infrastructure and public services from scratch, fit for the purpose of the modern world. Clearly, dangers lurk in the unknown corners of this still opening nation. But today's hype about this small, under-developed economy could prove wholly justified -- indeed, it could be much bigger than anyone thinks. 

Photo by Shawn Thew - Pool/Getty Images