NYT: Most weapons shipments to Syrian rebels are flowing to jihadists, not secularists

Via Tom Maguire, the Times seems to assume that there is in fact a significant secularist/pro-western faction among Syria’s rebels. Is there? Enough of one to fight the fundamentalists to a stalemate, at least, after Assad’s gone and the country inevitably descends into a period of warlordism? Or is this going to be Egypt redux, where a smallish group of liberal revolutionaries gets lots of camera time up front to build western support and then ends up being steamrolled by the Islamist hordes afterward?

“The opposition groups that are receiving the most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it,” said one American official familiar with the outlines of those findings, commenting on an operation that in American eyes has increasingly gone awry.

The United States is not sending arms directly to the Syrian opposition. Instead, it is providing intelligence and other support for shipments of secondhand light weapons like rifles and grenades into Syria, mainly orchestrated from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The reports indicate that the shipments organized from Qatar, in particular, are largely going to hard-line Islamists…

American officials have been trying to understand why hard-line Islamists have received the lion’s share of the arms shipped to the Syrian opposition through the shadowy pipeline with roots in Qatar, and, to a lesser degree, Saudi Arabia. The officials, voicing frustration, say there is no central clearinghouse for the shipments, and no effective way of vetting the groups that ultimately receive them…

One Middle Eastern diplomat who has dealt extensively with the C.I.A. on the issue said that Mr. Petraeus’s goal was to oversee the process of “vetting, and then shaping, an opposition that the U.S. thinks it can work with.”

Before, the intervention debate was over whether it’s better to withhold weapons and risk letting the rebels being annihilated by Assad or to send weapons to secularists/democrats and risk them being expropriated by jihadis. The hope early on was that that problem would be solved by mass defections and disobedience within the Syrian army leading to Assad either abdicating or being deposed. A year later, that hope is gone; Assad’s holding his forces together, probably thanks to Alawite fears of Sunni reprisals if the regime crumbles, but the rebels have gained territory across the country. So the calculus now is simpler: If the jihadis already have weapons and a protracted proxy war between Iran, the Saudis, and Turkey is guaranteed, the U.S. might as well start shaping its own pro-western proxy and making sure they’re not defenseless. It’s a small bit of leverage over a chaotic, gravely dangerous situation, and it might give the U.S. some input if/when Assad is gone and the Sunni factions reach a power-sharing arrangement. And of course, the quicker the fighting ends, the less time foreign jihadis have to set up inside the country. Walter Russell Mead:

Aiding the less ugly, less bad guys in the Syrian resistance, and even finding a few actual good guys to support, isn’t about installing a pro-American government in post civil war Syria. It’s about minimizing the prospects for a worst-case scenario—by shortening the era of conflict and so, hopefully, reducing the radicalization of the population and limiting the prospects that Syrian society as a whole will descend into all-out chaotic massacres and civil conflict. And it’s about making sure that other people in Syria, unsavory on other grounds as they may be, who don’t like al-Qaeda type groups and don’t want them to establish a permanent presence in the country, have enough guns and ammunition to get their way.

This is not a plan to edge the United States toward military engagement in Syria; it is aimed at reducing the chance that American forces will need to get involved. And, by accelerating the overthrow of Assad, it’s also a strategy for putting more pressure on Iran, pressure that represents our best hope of avoiding war with the mullahs as well. The whole point here is to keep our troops at home.

In other words, Petraeus and the CIA are trying to organize an “Awakening” among Syrians before jihadis become established to the degree that they were in western Iraq. The problem is, it looks like the best-case scenario in Syria after Assad is gone is Libya redux, with militias of all stripes armed to the teeth, quite possibly with chemical weapons, and some fledgling central government — likely more radical than Libya’s, thanks to the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence — struggling to cope with them. How does a U.S.-backed “secular” rebel group hope to hold off the panoply of Islamist militias backed by an Islamist government? This is why I started by asking about numbers: Ultimately, this comes down to manpower, and it’s hard to believe Islamists will be outmanned. (I’m assuming that the Alawites will either break away and form their own Iranian-backed Assad-istan enclave or that most of them will flee the country once Sunni radicals take power.)

A question from Jackson Diehl: Did Obama’s big “victory” in Libya actually cripple his ability to influence the much more important civil war in Syria?

The State Department’s Syria experts recognized the peril: If Assad were not overthrown quickly, they warned in congressional testimony, the country could tip into a devastating sectarian war that would empower jihadists and spread to neighboring countries. But Obama rejected suggestions by several senators that he lead an intervention. Instead he committed a second major error, by adopting a policy of seeking to broker a Syrian solution through the United Nations. “The best thing we can do,” he said last March, “is to unify the international community.”

As countless observers correctly predicted, the subsequent U.N. mission of Kofi Annan was doomed from the beginning. When the White House could no longer deny that reality, it turned to an equally fantastical gambit: Vladi­mir Putin, it argued, could be persuaded to abandon his support of Assad and force him to step down. The nadir of this diplomacy may have been reached on June 30, when Clinton cheerfully predicted that the Kremlin had “decided to get on one horse, and it’s the horse that would back a transition plan” removing Assad.

Needless to say, Putin did no such thing. The war went on; thousands more died. For the past three months, Obama’s policy has become a negative: He is simply opposed to any use of U.S. power. Fixed on his campaign slogan that “the tide of war is receding” in the Middle East, Obama claims that intervention would only make the conflict worse — and then watches as it spreads to NATO ally Turkey and draws in hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters.

He spent all his interventionist political capital on Libya and so now he’s committed to passivity towards Syria, at least until after the election when he’ll have more, ahem, “flexibility.” Romney should make that point often and loudly at the foreign policy debate next week, if only in the course of his criticism of security in Benghazi. Mitt’s already said he supports aid to the Syrian rebels, so we’re not having an “interventionism vs. non-interventionism” debate this campaign. (When do we ever?) It’s a basic point about Obama’s myopia. He wanted an “easy” war in Libya, and it’s made a harder one much harder. And now, unless something changes dramatically, the U.S. is bound to be playing drone whack-a-mole with terrorists hiding out in Syria for the next decade.

David Strom 6:41 PM on September 26, 2022
David Strom 4:41 PM on September 26, 2022