Ben Hubbard of the Associated Press filed a fascinating yet sobering report last week after being embedded with Syrian opposition fighters for two weeks. The report provides great insight into the debate over arming the Syrian opposition. It paints a picture of groups that are disorganized and lacking in basic communication. As the fighting becomes bloodier and the chaos grows, it becomes more evident that a U.S. or NATO intervention would be subject to numerous unintended consequences. Specifically, arming the wrong opposition groups should be a main concern. But relying on the hope that the C.I.A. can acquire sufficient knowledge of these groups’ makeup and future intentions would be misguided.
The most striking passages from the Associated Press story are the manner in which the opposition groups are treating captured Syrian troops:
One of northern Syria's most powerful and best-armed commanders, Al-Sheikh boasts more than 1,000 fighters, and they don't shy away from rougher tactics themselves. They have released prisoners in bomb-laden cars and then detonated them at army checkpoints — turning the drivers into unwitting suicide bombers.
While the regime has been brutal, so have some of the rebels — another cause of concern for the West.
Opposition activists filter most information about the rebels sent outside the country, making it hard to get an accurate picture. But several groups said they had sent captured soldiers “to Cyprus,” which the rebels use as a euphemism for execution usually by gunfire.
One group said it had killed two brothers caught collaborating with the regime — one during interrogation, the other by firing squad.
This is troubling and should make those advocating for arming the opposition take pause. It should be obvious that before any state sends arms to foreign fighters, it should know, at a minimum, the political makeup and intent of those fighters. In Syria, however, the fact remains that we have limited knowledge of what elements make up the opposition and how they are connected. They are not organized in any meaningful way that allows us to discern their makeup.
At this point, armed elements of the opposition are dispersed and uncoordinated. The “opposition network,” which might include the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian National Council, and the National Coordination Committee, lacks infrastructure and cohesiveness. At best, the opposition is an amalgam of loosely connected, dispersed rebels that share a basic trait: a hatred for the Assad regime and its decades of subjugation. From the Associated Press report:
While all share a deep hatred of President Bashar Assad's regime, their unity stops there.
Simply put, no one is in charge.
This comes at a time when efforts to end 15 months of strife in Syria are collapsing, and the rebel movement has taken the lead in the struggle against Assad. Some countries have talked of boosting the rebels' capabilities against the regime, and U.S. officials have told the AP that U.S. operatives are sifting among the rebel groups to determine which should receive arms from other Arab nations.
Rebel coordination rarely extends beyond neighboring towns and villages and never to the provincial or national level. Many rebels don't even know the commanders in towns two hours away.
According to the New York Times, the C.I.A. is working to fix this knowledge problem and identify these groups. The agency is now operating in southern Turkey in an effort to “help keep weapons out of the hands of fighters allied with Al Qaida or other terrorist groups.” Apparently, this endeavor is also aimed at vetting the different rebel groups and gathering intelligence on the “opposition network.”
The C.I.A. has a lot of work ahead of it. The notion that it will be able to define each group and pick the appropriate groups to arm is fraught with difficulties. As in Libya, the United States is now actively trying to organize the opposition, providing them with communication technology, but stopping short—allegedly—of sending arms. Washington is moving closer to picking winners and losers in a conflict—a civil war—that has little bearing on vital national security interests. The C.I.A. does not have a stellar track record of arming opposition groups it deems worthy. The potential for blowback increases the more involved we become.
The Obama administration should explain to the American people and Congress the ultimate goal of this policy. If the goal is to make sure arms flowing into Syria do not end up in the hands of al Qaeda or other terrorist groups—and Washington stops there—that seems warranted. But is there another step the United States might take? Unfortunately, the goal might be to organize and “vet” the right rebels, so Washington would feel better about arming them.
We already risk enveloping ourselves in this conflict by “steering arms” to the Syrian opposition, even if it is other countries that are providing arms directly. There are many, many reasons for the United States not to arm the opposition or intervene in Syria, beyond limited knowledge. But limited knowledge in a conflict always provides fertile ground for unintended consequences to take root. Relying on the C.I.A. to acquire this knowledge, determine a group’s intentions, and then accurately pick the “good” groups will only provide a false sense of security.