Would arming Syria’s rebels have stopped the Islamic State?

Flier for Syria fundraising event in Kuwait featuring Hajjaj al-Ajmi with Free Syrian Army leader Riad al-Assad and Umma Party head Hakim al-Matiri, June 8, as circulated by @alhayahalshabyh on Twitter.
Flier for Syria fundraising event in Kuwait featuring Hajjaj al-Ajmi with Free Syrian Army leader Riad al-Assad and Umma Party head Hakim al-Matiri, June 8, as circulated by @alhayahalshabyh on Twitter.

Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton made news this weekend by suggesting that the rise of the Islamic State might have been prevented had the Obama administration moved to more aggressively arm Syrian rebels in 2012. Variants of this narrative have been repeated so often by so many different people in so many venues that it’s easy to forget how implausible this policy option really was.

It’s easy to understand why desperate Syrians facing the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad hoped for Western support, especially by early 2012 as the conflict shifted inexorably from a civic uprising into an insurgency. It is less obvious that U.S. arms for the rebels would have actually helped them. Arming the rebels (including President Obama’s recent $500 million plan) was, from the start, a classic bureaucratic “Option C,” driven by a desire to be seen as doing something while understanding that there was no American appetite at all for more direct intervention. It also offered a way to get a first foot on the slippery slope; a wedge for demanding escalation of commitments down the road after it had failed.

There’s no way to know for sure what would have happened had the United States offered more support to Syrian rebels in the summer of 2012, of course. But there are pretty strong reasons for doubting that it would have been decisive. Even Sen. John McCain was pretty clear about this at the time, arguing that arming the rebels “alone will not be decisive” and that providing weapons in the absence of safe areas protected by U.S. airpower “may even just prolong [the conflict].” Clinton, despite the hyperventilating headlines, only suggested that providing such arms might have offered “some better insight into what was going on on the ground” and “helped in standing up a credible political opposition.” Thoughtful supporters of the policy proposed “managing the militarization” of the conflict and using a stronger Free Syrian Army as leverage to bring Assad to the bargaining table.

Would the United States providing more arms to the FSA have accomplished these goals? The academic literature is not encouraging. In general, external support for rebels almost always make wars longer, bloodier and harder to resolve (for more on this, see the proceedings of this Project on Middle East Political Science symposium in the free PDF download). Worse, as the University of Maryland’s David Cunningham has shown, Syria had most of the characteristics of the type of civil war in which external support for rebels is least effective. The University of Colorado’s Aysegul Aydin and Binghamton University’s Patrick Regan have suggested that external support for a rebel group could help when all the external powers backing a rebel group are on the same page and effectively cooperate in directing resources to a common end. Unfortunately, Syria was never that type of civil war.

Syria’s combination of a weak, fragmented collage of rebel organizations with a divided, competitive array of external sponsors was therefore the worst profile possible for effective external support. Clinton understands this. She effectively pinpoints the real problem when she notes that the rebels “were often armed in an indiscriminate way by other forces and we had no skin in the game that really enabled us to prevent this indiscriminate arming.” An effective strategy of arming the Syrian rebels would never have been easy, but to have any chance at all it would have required a unified approach by the rebels’ external backers, and a unified rebel organization to receive the aid. That would have meant staunching financial flows from its Gulf partners, or at least directing them in a coordinated fashion. Otherwise, U.S. aid to the FSA would be just another bucket of water in an ocean of cash and guns pouring into the conflict.

But such coordination was easier said than done. The Qatari-Saudi rivalry was playing out across the region, not only in Syria. Their intense struggles over the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt and the overall course of the Arab uprisings were peaking during the 2012–13 window during which arming the rebels was being discussed. Their competition largely precluded any unified Gulf strategy. Turkey and Qatar channeled money and support to a variety of Islamist groups. Meanwhile, U.S.-Saudi relations were also at their nadir, before fears of jihadist blowback began to concentrate Saudi minds. Riyadh showed no more interest in following the United States’ lead in Syria than it did on Egypt or Iranian nuclear talks. External backers of the rebels didn’t even agree on whether the goal was to protect civilians, overthrow Assad, bring the regime to the table, or to wage a region-wide sectarian war against Iran. It is difficult to see Gulf capitals embroiled in these regional battles becoming more receptive to American guidance just because the United States had some “skin in the game.”

Meanwhile, huge private donations from the Gulf flowed toward mostly Islamist-oriented groups. These were massive public mobilization campaigns, mostly led by popular and ambitious Islamist figures who framed support for Syria along religious and sectarian lines in increasingly extreme ways. (Incidentally, the magnitude of those campaigns reveals the absurdity of recent claims that Arabs had ignored Syria’s war compared to Gaza.) Kuwait became the key arena for collecting money, as other Gulf states more tightly controlled private donations for Syria, but Islamists from across the region and especially Saudi Arabia continued to play a prominent role in the campaigns. Fears of jihadist blowback have led Gulf states to crack down on these private efforts, including Kuwait’s recent stripping of the citizenship of Nabil al-Awadhy, one of the most prominent of these Syria campaigners. But at the time Clinton’s plan was under discussion, those campaigns were peaking, with massive public support built around Islamic and sectarian identity.

That intra-state competition and popular mobilization is the regional context within which U.S. efforts to arm the FSA would have unfolded. The FSA was always more fiction than reality, with a structure on paper masking the reality of highly localized and fragmented fighting groups on the ground. Charles Lister’s comprehensive recent survey of the current Syrian military battlefield should quickly dispense with the simpler versions of the conflict. Syria’s civil war has long been a dizzying array of local battles, with loose and rapidly shifting alliances driven more by self-interest and the desires of their external patrons than ideology. Even at the height of the conflict between the Islamic State and its more secular rivals, local affiliates fought side by side in other theaters of the war. No one should be surprised that, as Hassan Hassan reports, some U.S.-backed and vetted groups have aligned with the Islamic State.

The idea that these rebel groups could be vetted for moderation and entrusted with advanced weaponry made absolutely no sense given the realities of the conflict in Syria. These local groups frequently shifted sides and formed alliances of convenience as needed. As MIT’s Fotini Christia has documented in cases from Afghanistan to Bosnia, and the University of Virginia’s Jonah Shulhofer-Wohl has detailed in Syria, rebel groups that lack a legitimate and effective over-arching institutional structure almost always display these kinds of rapidly shifting alliances and “blue on blue” violence. A “moderate, vetted opposition” means little when alliances are this fluid and organizational structures so weak.

The murkiness of the “terrorist group” line in this context is apparent in these changing alliances and conflicts. For instance, the United States recently designated two key Kuwaiti Islamists as terror financiers, accusing them of channeling funds to Jubhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. But both were better known as backers of Ahrar al-Sham, a large Salafist organization that then worked within the Saudi-backed Islamic Front. And as recently as June, when they were allegedly funding the Islamic State and al-Nusra, one of them was holding events with FSA commander Riad al-Assad. These complexities, so deeply familiar to everyone who studies the conflict, deeply undermine the assumptions underlying plans resting on identifying and supporting “moderate rebels.”

Many have argued that the United States might have changed all of this by offering more support for the FSA. But based upon his outstanding recent book “Networks of Rebellion,” the University of Chicago’s Paul Staniland urges caution. Initial organizational weaknesses have long-lasting implications. “Pumping material support” into them, he observes, “might buy some limited cooperation from factions that need help, but is unlikely to trigger deep organizational change. This means that foreign backing for undisciplined groups will not do much.” Syria’s famously fractured and ineffective opposition would not likely have been miraculously improved through a greater infusion of U.S. money or guns.

In short, then, discussion of U.S. support for Syria’s rebels overstates the extent to which such aid would matter given the diverse sources of support available. U.S. arms would have joined a crowded market and competed within an increasingly Islamist and sectarian environment. Even the argument that Islamist fighters would shave off beards and follow the money if the United States got involved is self-defeating, since it admits that they would just as easily flip back when a better offer comes along. Both state financing and the public campaigns exacerbated rebel fragmentation on the ground as each group jockeyed for access to lucrative external patrons. The United States had far less money to offer rebels compared with the Gulf states, and placed far more conditions. It might have been able to offer uniquely privileged access to advanced weaponry, which many rebels did dearly want. Anti-tank missiles did find their way to rebel groups anyway, of course, presumably with U.S. support. But it’s difficult to imagine any responsible U.S. official signing off on providing surface-to-air missiles, for reasons made graphically apparent by the shooting down of the Malaysian Flight MH17 over Ukraine.

Finally, the idea that more U.S. support for the FSA would have prevented the emergence of the Islamic State isn’t even remotely plausible. The open battlefield and nature of the struggle ensured that jihadists would find Syria’s war appealing. The Islamic State recovered steam inside of Iraq as part of a broad Sunni insurgency driven by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s bloody, ham-fisted crackdowns in Hawija and Fallujah, and more broadly because of the disaffection of key Sunni actors over Maliki’s sectarian authoritarianism. It is difficult to see how this would have been affected in the slightest by a U.S.-backed FSA (or, for that matter, by a residual U.S. military presence in Iraq, but that’s another debate for another day). There is certainly no reason to believe that the Islamic State and other extremist groups would have stayed away from such an ideal zone for jihad simply because Western-backed groups had additional guns and money.

Had the plan to arm Syria’s rebels been adopted back in 2012, the most likely scenario is that the war would still be raging and look much as it does today, except that the United States would be far more intimately and deeply involved. That’s a prospect that Clinton frankly acknowledged during her interview, but that somehow didn’t make it into the headline. As catastrophic as Syria’s war has been, and as alarming as the Islamic State has become, there has never been a plausible case to be made that more U.S. arms for Syrian rebels would have meaningfully altered their path.

Marc Lynch is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
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