Saudi and American officials seeking to stand up rebel forces against ISIS appear to mean well. They do not intend to create future terrorists. But the planners of this strategy in Washington and Riyadh delude themselves about the nature of the fighters they create. American policymakers especially tend to believe that rebels trained and supported by America will respond to U.S. direction and serve U.S. interests, functioning in essence as crude but effective instruments of foreign policy. This has been the consistent belief of American policymakers since the end of WWII and has led the United States to support unsavory outfits ranging from the Contras to the Kosovo Liberation Army.
By definition rebel groups do not answer to authority. They tend to take whatever arms, training and funding they can get from friendly governments and pursue their own agenda. Any rebels backed by Saudi Arabia and America can be expected to do the same. True, the interests of anti-ISIS rebels align with the U.S. and Saudi policy aims in the sense that all camps yearn for the downfall of the horrific regime presiding now over large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. Mutual interests likely end there, however. Rebel groups backed by the Washington and Riyadh can be counted on to pursue their own aims even while they work with America and Saudi Arabia against ISIS.
What goals the rebels might have for themselves will be difficult to know. The fighters who will soon begin arriving at training camps in Saudi Arabia probably will not have a sense themselves of what the future holds beyond the fight against ISIS. But we can all be sure that nothing good will come of the effort apart from any blows these guerrillas manage to land against ISIS. This is because the region as a whole is in such turmoil. Even if the Syrian rebels depart Saudi Arabia as moderates, they will not likely remain so as they wage war in lands where extremism and instability prevail. The rebels backed by Washington against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi probably did not plan to begin fighting among themselves immediately upon the Libyan ruler’s downfall. Yet they have, plunging the country into a state of near chaos.