In the 1980s, the U.S. and its Saudi allies teamed up to funnel money and weapons to Afghan Islamists whose bloody “victory” set the stage for the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Now, the same team is heading back to work supporting Sunni rebels in Syria, as the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland explains.
By Ivan Eland
The United States and Saudi Arabia appear to be ramping up aid to the Syrian rebels. Here we go again on the road to debacle. Why? The media never holds anybody to either their predictions or their results – officeholders, politicians, and of course their own pundits. And it’s a good thing for people like Bill Kristol, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham.
No matter what the overseas “crisis“ – or where it is – they are gung-ho about sending either U.S. forces or U.S. arms into the fray. Recently, these war hawks have been pounding the drums for U.S. greater intervention in Syria.
Their argument isn’t that the Syrian rebellion will fall apart if the United States doesn’t provide arms, it’s that when the insurgents finally take over Syria, the U.S. will won’t have much “influence.“ They argue that militant Islamists among the rebels, who are the most well armed and ruthless fighters, will become dominant if the United States does not arm the more secular and democratic forces.
Yet the war hawks don’t ever ask themselves how the Islamists became the most well-armed groups in Syria — answer: by being the most ruthless. So far, the United States has reportedly helped Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni Arab arms providers to vet the groups to which they are arranging weapons shipments. Yet despite those efforts, media reports indicate that the Islamists seem to be getting the lion share of the weapons anyway. In chaotic war situations, such unintended consequences are usually the rule rather than the exception.
And the situation in Syria may be about to get worse. Media reports indicate that the Saudis have ramped up their arms financing — purchasing and sending to Syria a large shipment of Croatian infantry weapons, a transaction that seems to have been facilitated by the United States.
In addition, the Syrian rebels have extorted pledges of more humanitarian aid from the United States and United Kingdom in exchange for attending a Friends of Syria meeting in Rome. Previously, the U.S. has shipped “non-lethal“ communications and medical supplies to the rebels.
So the public pronouncement that the United States is not arming the rebels is only technically true; the reality is that the U.S. is vetting and facilitating the delivery by other countries of weapons to the insurgents. Even the communications equipment the U.S. sends directly could be used to increase the coordination, and thus effectiveness, of rebel missions.
Is there any crisis the United States can stay out of? With huge federal budget deficits and a monstrous national debt of $16.5 trillion, one would think “conservative“ Kristol, McCain, and Graham would want to at least save some government money. And if they actually looked at the track record of recent U.S. interventions, which wasted taxpayer money on failing enterprise after failing enterprise, they might see that the case for cost avoidance in Syria is even greater.
Since the post-Vietnam return of U.S. interventionism (subdued only in the immediate aftermath of the war during the Ford and Carter administrations) during the Reagan administration and after, very few episodes of overseas meddling have been successful. During the Reagan administration, contrary to popular belief, attacking and bombing Libya only led Muammar Qaddafi to more terrorism — this time aimed U.S. targets.
In Lebanon, U.S. forces turned from neutral peacekeepers to active participants on one side of a civil war and ultimately left with their tails between their legs after the bombing by Hezbollah of the Marine Corps barracks. In a situation similar to today’s Syria, U.S. weapons supplies to Afghan rebels fighting the Soviets went to the most radical groups, leading to the rise of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the 9/11 attacks, and ultimately the Afghan bog in which the United States now finds itself.
Finally, Reagan secretly, illegally, and unconstitutionally funded – against the wishes of Congress – the thuggish Contra rebels in Nicaragua with the proceeds gained from selling arms to terrorist-sponsoring Iran, thus creating a scandal worse for the Republic than Watergate.
George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s successor, ineptly and unwittingly gave the green light for Saddam Hussein, whom Reagan had supported, to invade Kuwait and then sent U.S. troops to put the Iraqi leader back in his box — creating a cascade of events that later led his son, George W. Bush, to invade Iraq and ensnare the U.S. in a near-decade long quagmire.
Bill Clinton, the modern-day intervention king in pure numbers of incidents, was railroaded out of Somalia by an attack from a Somali warlord trained by Osama bin Laden and also conducted one of the many U.S. military incursions to Haiti, which have only made things worse in that impoverished and corrupt country.
Barack Obama, in addition to continuing and escalating George W. Bush’s tar baby in Afghanistan, has expanded Bush’s air wars in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, which are all more about creating new enemies than killing any remaining perpetrators of 9/11. Finally, in a predictor of what might loom in Syria, Obama took out Muammar Qaddafi, leading to instability in that country that killed a U.S. ambassador and funneled many Islamists and Qaddafi’s vast liberated weapons stocks to take over northern Mali.
If the rebels do finally displace Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, the subsequent internecine violence could dwarf that of the tribal conflict and instability in post-Qaddafi Libya, because Syria has sectarian tensions, similar to those in Iraq, which Libya does not possess.
Thus, after analyzing and admitting such a record of failed interventions, how can anyone in the United States, with a straight face, advocate wading deeper into the Syrian swamp?
Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.