Will Arming Syrian Rebels Lead to Disaster?

The United States is about to start arming and training the Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. If done well, this move can end a bloody civil war. If done poorly, it could lead to disaster. Will Obama and his team do the right thing?

It turns out Afghanistan of the 1980s is a terrific test case for how to handle the Syrian rebels. The Afghan mujahedin then and the Syrian rebels now both seem incapable of forming a broad national consensus or an effective united political and military organization. Both have a significant component of hard-core Islamist extremists in their midst who are fundamentally opposed to American interests. But both also have a legitimate cause that deserves our support. The issue is how to help wisely.

The CIA’s support of the Afghans ended in brilliant success and the downfall of the Soviet Union, but it succeeded only because it was fought with a clear mission, strong allies and broad bipartisan support. Even then, it also had serious unintended consequences that haunt us to this day.

A key lesson of Afghanistan is to be very clear from the beginning about your objective and mission. In the 1980s the goal was to defeat the Soviets by creating a quagmire for the Red Army like Vietnam was for America. The key planners behind the CIA operation to support the mujahedin, especially CIA Director Bill Casey, wanted to turn Afghanistan into Moscow’s Vietnam. They did.

Then Washington let mission creep develop. The Reagan and Bush administrations were unsure of what they wanted to do next. Some in Washington wanted to overthrow the communist government in Kabul that survived after the Russian withdrawal. Others wanted to support a political process to build a broad-based national unity government. And others wanted to forget Afghanistan and concentrate on forging a new world order with the post-communist leadership in Moscow. The American national-security bureaucracy became almost dysfunctional. In the end chaos ensued in Afghanistan.

What mission does arming the rebels in Syria support? It must be more than stopping Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Is it regime change or bolstering a political process in Geneva? Is it a means to unite the opposition and purge it of the al Nusra front, al Qaeda’s arm in Syria? Is it to defeat Iran and Hezbollah and bring regime change beyond Syria? We have yet to hear the answers to these questions.

Then there’s the matter of allies. The American support for the Afghan resistance was built around strong support from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Only some 50 or so CIA officers were ever engaged at one time in helping the mujahedin. Their job was to buy arms for the rebels and ship them to Karachi. After they arrived in that port the war was fought by the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI), which did all the training of the insurgents. ISI officers crossed the border into Afghanistan and even Soviet Central Asia to provide critical “boots on the ground” expertise and leadership when needed. The Pakistanis took all the risks of Soviet blowback at home as the KGB used terror operations inside Pakistan to try to shake Islamabad’s resolve. The Saudis helped pay for the operation with both government and private funds.

Of course, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia had different interests in Afghanistan than America. Our interests only overlapped for a time. Saudi Arabia wanted to establish an Islamic state in Afghanistan and repress Shia (it wants the same in Syria today). And Pakistan was determined to install a puppet government in Afghanistan once the Russians left. That remains the ISI’s goal today, which is why we are now fighting a proxy war with Pakistan in Afghanistan.

In Syria, we will need the same sort of help. We can’t arm the rebels without a base next door. We should work with Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar as well as the U.K. and France. But we should have no illusions that we all share the same end game. Our arms could end up in al Qaeda’s hands not just in Syria but in Iraq, Jordan, and elsewhere. They could be used to kill Americans.

And there is going to need to be bipartisan support in the Congress for a major covert operation arming a rebellion. Reagan and Casey had that in the 1980s. It was famously Democratic congressman Charlie Wilson’s war as much as it was Reagan’s war (at least in Hollywood). Some of the enthusiasm included a great deal of naiveté about our allies, especially the ISI, and a lot of romanticism about the mujahedin, but it also provided a solid base of support.

If America’s Syria mission lacks that, it will be constantly second-guessed. If the administration wants to arm the rebels, then it needs to make the case clearly and strongly. The president will need to take ownership. Hesitancy and uncertainty are a recipe for disaster.

Of course, there are many differences between Afghanistan in the 1980s and Syria today. Assad is not Brezhnev, and frankly, the stakes are not nearly as great. But no matter what, there will be unintended consequences. Arming the mujahedin was the right policy in the 1980s; Casey and Reagan never dreamed that Afghanistan would become a base for jihadists who would attack America. But it also had unintended and dangerous fallout. Clear thinking about goal, avoiding mission creep, frank talk with allies, and building bipartisan support can help bring the right outcome. Arming the rebels in Syria may be the right move today, but it could also be the start to a process that ends in another deeply unpopular, expensive, and counterproductive American war in the Islamic world.