Did politics prevent President Obama from arming Syria's rebels?

Top members of Obama's national security team urged him to provide more support to the opposition — but to no avail

Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta
(Image credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday said he had supported a plan to arm rebels in Syria seeking to overthrow longtime leader Bashar al-Assad. In addition, he said General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had also backed the plan, but that it was eventually vetoed by the White House.

With Panetta's testimony, it's now clear that nearly the entire national security apparatus had supported the proposal, which would have seen the U.S. arm rebels who had been vetted to ensure that American weapons were not funneled to terrorist groups that have descended on Syria in droves. The plan had been developed by David Petraeus, the former head of the CIA, and was reportedly supported by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

What happened? According to The New York Times:

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Neither Mr. Panetta nor General Dempsey explained why President Obama did not heed their recommendation. But senior American officials have said that the White House was worried about the risks of becoming more deeply involved in the Syria crisis, including the possibility that weapons could fall into the wrong hands. And with Mr. Obama in the middle of a re-election campaign, the White House rebuffed the plan, a decision that Mr. Panetta says he now accepts. [New York Times]

To be sure, there are plenty of legitimate reasons not to provide arms to Syrian rebels, starting with the fact that the weapons could very well end up in the hands of al Qaeda affiliates. Even getting the weapons to the purportedly right groups could pose problems — just think of the CIA-armed Afghan freedom fighters of the 1980s, many of whom turned against the U.S. after 9/11.

Furthermore, approaching the conflict gingerly, instead of laying a hand on the scale, has its own benefits. "In a cold-blooded, pragmatic sense, the United States and its allies don't want Bashar Assad's government to collapse immediately," says Doyle McManus at The Los Angeles Times. "Nobody's ready — inside Syria or out — to pick up the pieces."

Obama himself appeared to allude to such a scenario in a recent interview with The New Republic. "What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground?" he said. "Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime?"

The reasons to support the Syrian rebels are also rather compelling — and apparently compelling enough to convince every major foreign policymaker outside the White House. If Assad fell tomorrow, the rebels would have no reason to heed advice from the States, and would likely view the U.S.'s hands-off approach as a betrayal.

"The day after the regime falls, the groups that have the guns will dominate the political and military situation," Jeffrey White, a former Defense Department analyst, told The New York Times. "And if some of those groups owe that capability to us, that would be a good thing. It does not mean that we could control the situation, but it would give us a means of shaping it."

Many suspect that the White House backed off because arming the rebels would have interfered with Obama's re-election plans. As Elliott Abrams at The Council on Foreign Relations writes:

One cannot escape the conclusion that electoral politics played a role, as The New York Times's phrasing suggests. That should be remembered, as should the fact of this unanimous recommendation, when next we hear White House explanations of why the United States cannot and should not act. "It's too risky; we don't know who to whom to give the training or arms; it might backfire; they don't need the arms;" the excuses go on and on. But rather a different light is thrown on those excuses when we learn that if the president believed them, none of his top advisers did. [Council on Foreign Relations]

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Ryu Spaeth

Ryu Spaeth is deputy editor at TheWeek.com. Follow him on Twitter.