The story of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is notable for its jaw-dropping stupidity. As best as anyone can tell, the plane was probably shot down by pro-Russian separatists who are basically the Bundy Ranch of Ukraine, except Vladimir Putin has armed them to the eyeballs with top-of-the-line military hardware. The Netherlands, where the bulk of the victims are from, is extraordinarily pissed about this, and the European Union may well implement biting sanctions against Russia, for the sheer idiotic recklessness of it all if nothing else.
We should keep this in mind as pressure mounts in the U.S. for arming certain rebels in Syria. Despite doubts from members of Congress, the Senate is so far reluctantly going along with President Obama's plan to spend $500 million to arm them.
If this plan goes through, it will not achieve anything substantially positive for the United States or anyone else. MH17 is just one example of what could go wrong. There are also the umpteen other times we dropped sophisticated weapons into some conflict we neither understood nor cared about very much. Max Fisher once explained the history:
The U.S. has a long, complicated, and dark history of arming rebel groups around the world. Our support for the anti-communist militias in Argentina and Honduras led us to directly train some of the fighters that later evolved into outright death squads. Nixon-era CIA operations in Chile helped Augusto Pinochet's takeover by military coup, which later ended with Pinochet's arrest as a war criminal for the mass murder and torture. The Nicaraguan contras, whom we armed in the 1980s to terrorize the Marxist government, instead terrorized civilians, whom they tortured and killed in large numbers. The U.S.'s support for the rise of the Khmer Rouge, remembered for their genocide of nearly 2 million Cambodians, is more ambiguous and complicated. At the very least, they enjoyed tacit U.S. tolerance as long as they fought Communist Vietnam. [The Atlantic]
More recently, arms we gave to Libyan rebels in 2011 ended up in the hands of jihadists. And that's not to mention the Stinger missiles the CIA dropped on Afghan rebels in the 1980s who would later form the Taliban.
Furthermore, the disastrous failure of every single one of those efforts can also be attributed to the practically bottomless ignorance and incompetence of the agencies typically tasked with carrying out those missions.
The account of the Senate debate over this resolution illustrates this point rather pitifully:
[Democratic Sen. Mark] Pryor questioned whether the administration can determine the moderate forces in Syria as the 3-year-old civil war grinds on with 170,000 dead. He said it would be impossible to keep track of weapons that could further destabilize the region and expressed doubts about an open-ended authorization to the administration...
Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat and chairman of the appropriations defense subcommittee, acknowledged that the proposal was a gamble, but warned that if the U.S. didn't do it, it likely would do little or nothing. "We are trying to stop [Bashar al-] Assad and the march of terrorism," Durbin said. ... Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said it was "probably too little, too late" but a step that should be taken. ... [First Post]
To sum: "This almost certainly won't work, but we have to do something, because America!" The measure was easily voted out of committee, 21-9.
Now, the full Senate hasn't yet voted on this rebel-arming resolution, and neither has the House. But if this committee vote is any guide, there's a good chance hundreds of rebels in Syria will be toting top-grade U.S. weaponry. Fingers crossed that won't turn out as badly as arming the Afghan mujahedeen did.
In the final analysis, the U.S. simply doesn't have much influence over events in Syria, or most countries in the world for that matter. Our efforts to micromanage other nations' conflicts have repeatedly blown up in our face. Maybe this time we should just leave the arms at home.