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Obama's meddling in Syria could backfire on the U.S. — and the rebels, too
The U.S.'s limited support for the rebels has only exacerbated a humanitarian disaster
 
A Syrian rebels recovers from his wounds on the outskirts of Aleppo.
A Syrian rebels recovers from his wounds on the outskirts of Aleppo. (AP/Muhammed Muheisen)

Reuters confirmed this week what close watchers of our foreign policy already knew or suspected. In the headline argot of the internet: "It's Official: The U.S. Is Arming Syrian Rebels."

But, as the article hastens to add, Congress didn't approve giving guns to just anyone who is working for the violent overthrow of the Syrian government. Lawmakers have only approved giving guns to the "moderates" working for the violent overthrow of the Syrian government.

It's unclear on what basis the U.S. is distinguishing between the sort of Syrian revolutionaries who would turn their country into a liberal democracy along the lines of a New Hampshire township, and those who want to impose Islamic law on the state and cleanse their nation of dissenters and non-Muslims. How does the U.S. prevent, say, a freedom fighter from giving his American-provided gun to the jihadi fighting the same government?

Some U.S. officials at least seem aware of the problem. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned the Senate Intelligence Committee this week that there are 7,000 foreign fighters in Syria, and that "we'd rate as extremists" 26,000 rebel fighters — perhaps a third of the opposition forces.

Some foreign policy realists argue that any humiliation of the Bashar al-Assad regime would be a mortal blow to Iran's interests in the region. But it is precisely the murkiness of this conflict and the potential for it to go haywire that should cause us to become even more anxious about getting in too deep.

One of the typical measures in Just War theory is that the conflict have a reasonable expectation of succeeding in its aims. But American intervention in Syria seems to be about preserving the balance of chaos in a civil war. As counterterrorism expert Bruce Riedel told Reuters: "The Syrian war is a stalemate. The rebels lack the organization and weapons to defeat Assad; the regime lacks the loyal manpower to suppress the rebellion. Both sides' external allies... are ready to supply enough money and arms to fuel the stalemate for the foreseeable future."

And it gets worse: By offering the rebels only a modest amount of support, the U.S. is inviting precisely the kind of carnage that the international community has condemned with such force.

When the Obama administration called publicly for Assad to step down from his government in 2011, it naturally raised the expectation that the U.S. would give substantial and decisive support to the rebel effort. This ratcheting of expectations increased last September, when President Obama and some U.S. legislators began tub-thumping for broad intervention in Syria's civil war under the "responsibility to protect" doctrine, which says that states forfeit their sovereignty when they commit crimes against humanity.

University of Texas scholar Alan J. Kuperman has studied "responsibility to protect" interventions, and argues straightforwardly that the rising expectations of Western support in civil wars sometimes precipitate the genocidal violence such support purports to avert.

The most counterintuitive aspect of the Responsibility to Protect is that it sometimes contributes to the tragedies that it intends to prevent. The root of the problem is that genocide and ethnic cleansing often represent state retaliation against a sub-state group for rebellion, or armed secession, by some of its members. The emerging norm, by raising hopes of diplomatic and military intervention to protect these groups, unintentionally fosters rebellion by lowering its expected cost and raising its likelihood of success. Intervention does sometimes help rebels attain their political goals, but it is usually too late or inadequate to avert retaliation against civilians. Thus, the emerging norm resembles an imperfect insurance policy against genocidal violence. It creates a moral hazard that encourages the excessively risky behavior of rebellion by members of groups that are vulnerable to genocidal retaliation, but it cannot fully protect these groups against the backlash. The emerging norm thereby causes some genocidal violence that otherwise would not occur.

Kuperman sharpened this observation while studying the conflict between Albanian Muslims and Serbians in Kosovo. The destructive pattern he found was that revolutionary groups would make provocative attacks, hoping that their government would make an overreaching counterattack, creating the international outrage that would lead to intervention on behalf of their cause.

By raising hopes that the air power of Uncle Sam would come to their aid, the Obama administration encouraged rebels to continue fighting even if they could never carry their cause to success by themselves. The Obama administration's bold rhetoric, and Congress' authorization of limited support of the "moderate" rebels, have exacerbated a civil war, worsened a major humanitarian crisis, and contributed to the instability, unrest, and extremism that threaten to destroy minorities in Syria, including Christians who have suffered mightily at the hands of the rebel opposition.

There is no doubt that the Assad regime is an ugly and brutal one. And the U.S government may yet find a way to end a stalemated war it has needlessly prolonged at the Geneva II talks. But U.S. policy in Syria has been feckless, immoral, and deeply unjust. If it has embarrassed Iran or Russia, it has done so at a high price.

We do not know who we are really arming. We do not know who those weapons will be aimed at tomorrow. We are a stumbling giant, trying to micromanage a conflagration without getting burned.

 
Michael Brendan Dougherty is senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is the founder and editor of The Slurve, a newsletter about baseball. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine, Slate and The American Conservative.

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