Obama’s Half-Billion to Syria’s ‘Moderates’

President Obama’s plan to spend another half-billion dollars on Syria’s “moderate” rebels will add more fuel to the destructive violence just as the killing was finally dying down. It’s also hard to see how this investment will promote serious negotiations, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The Obama administration’s proposal to spend $500 million on training and equipping “appropriately vetted elements of the moderate Syrian armed opposition” leaves unanswered some of the same questions that always have surrounded proposals to give lethal aid to Syrian rebels.

Some of those questions involve the challenges in determining who qualifies as a “moderate.” “Vetting” sounds so much easier to do than it actually is to do. It is very difficult to do with anything that is even half as jumbled, confused, and extremist-ridden as is the current armed opposition to the Syrian regime.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

It is interesting how many of those in Washington who are quick to lambaste the national security bureaucracy for supposedly being unable to perceive and predict accurately who is doing what in the Middle East seem to have ample confidence in the ability of that same bureaucracy to “vet” Syrian rebels.

“Moderate” presumably refers to long-term political objectives rather than to current methods, given that anyone who is engaging in armed rebellion is by definition using non-moderate methods. The principal difficulty in identifying those political objectives stems not from faulty information or analysis today but rather from the impossibility of predicting the directions that groups or leaders, facing changed circumstances, will take in the future.

History is replete with examples of leaders whose trajectories once in power could not have been extrapolated from what they did or said while they were still rebels. Another complication is that fighters and the arms they carry have a way of moving from group to group. There already has been some of this movement in the Syrian civil war.

One hears the argument that the presence of many nasty and immoderate people in the Syrian opposition is all the more reason to aid moderate groups, so that fighters will gravitate toward the moderate groups rather than the extreme ones. But if allegiance and political inclination can be transferred or bought this easily, this calls into question the validity of any “vetting.”

The most fundamental question about any aid to Syrian rebels is exactly how this type of support advances whatever is our own political objective for Syria, or at least makes more likely an outcome of the war that is more rather than less consistent with U.S. interests.

The White House statement about the aid proposal says the assistance is intended to “help defend the Syrian people, stabilize areas under opposition control, facilitate the provision of essential services, counter terrorist threats, and promote conditions for a negotiated settlement.” That sounds reasonable enough, although the nature of the objective concerning a negotiated settlement is unclear given that we never appear to have rescinded explicitly the previously stated objective that Assad must go.

Perhaps some aid to the rebellion would shift the momentum on the battlefield enough for some figures in the regime’s camp to support a negotiated settlement more than they do now. If that is to happen, however, rather than aid to rebels being just one step in a new spiral of escalation, a more complete pro-negotiation strategy will have to become apparent, with everything that entails particularly for the roles of Russia and Iran.

We also should be wary of a dynamic we observed with some of our client groups in Afghanistan. When a group realizes that it is being aided only because of its role in an ongoing war, it has an incentive to keep the war ongoing. And that means it is more likely to oppose negotiations, at least under any terms that are reasonable and feasible, than to support them.

Meanwhile, we have the irony of the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad reportedly conducting air strikes against positions of the hated ISIS group in Iraq. The Iraqi prime minister says he didn’t ask for the strikes but welcomes them. Some of the same Washington hawks who have been most gung-ho about toppling Assad have also been gung-ho about doing what Assad’s own forces are doing in Western Iraq.

You can’t tell the players in the Middle East without a scorecard. Or rather, the line-ups are so confused even with a scorecard that we need to think again about trying to play whatever is the game that’s going on.

It is unclear how much of what the Obama administration has been doing lately in Iraq and Syria, including this proposal to give lethal aid to Syrian rebels, it would have done without the political pressure from critics to “do something” in those countries.

Both the administration and its critics need to keep end games and broad strategy in mind and continually to ask themselves — as well as making more clear for the rest of us — how any move today will make more probable a desired end state in either country.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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3 comments on “Obama’s Half-Billion to Syria’s ‘Moderates’

  1. F. G. Sanford on said:

    Does anybody remember the kid who would always blow milk out of his nose if you could make him laugh in the school cafeteria? I heard that John McCain nominated Michelle Bachman to head up the committee to submit the test questions to “vet” the rebels. The $500 million in aid is slated to go to the CIA proxy terrorists we have been training in Jordan. The money will entice them to attack anybody but our puppet dictators. So far, the biggest concern is whether or not they can pass the test. Peter King and Mike Rogers are worried that Bachman’s test questions will be “too hard”. They want a “Common Core” oversight committee to insure standardized test questions will reflect the level of education achieved by the Terror Academy in Jordan. A pilot version of the examination was administered to Lindsay Graham. For the most part, he fared pretty well, but had some trouble on the essay section: “How do you determine if the commander of a rival faction is trying to escape disguised in a woman’s burka?” The matching section of the test was no problem. Lindsay flew through the part about things you can’t do with your left hand, but he had a little trouble with those “child bride” questions. And, he wasn’t sure if the age of consent applied to goats. Bernie Sanders raised some objections, insinuating that the $500 million could be used to pay Detroit’s water bill. That didn’t go over well, as Ms. Bachman insisted National Security has priority over domestic issues. Ted Cruz pointed out that running water is actually one of the things that attracts illegal immigrants. John Bohner was miffed because the proposed lawsuit against President Obama might delay passage of the aid package. Ms Bachman piped up, reminding him that defunding the executive branch would prevent The President from using his veto powers to implement Shari’ah law. Hobby Lobby filed an amicus brief contending that victims of cannibalism constitute organ donors, so employers are not responsible for costs incurred by unspecified medical procedures. The five Iraqi soldiers crucified by rebels was cited by some as cause for alarm. Word that one of them survived undermined confidence in the effectiveness of the training program. Ms. Bachman insisted that defective nails could not be ruled out. Pragmatic voices were ridiculed for suggesting the aid package was merely a sop to defense contractors. They proposed just giving the money directly to Haliburton as a “Warfare Depletion Allowance”. The House Intelligence Committee unanimously objected citing fungible assets that were promised to Jordan. John Brennan blew milk out of his nose when he saw Lindsay’s test results, and decided to draw up some “cheat sheets”.

  2. @ Paul Pillar. The problem is, “We don’t know whose side we’re on”!!

    Go figure!
    Please, Ambassador Ford. Name me a “moderate” Syrian rebel
    http://www.veteransnewsnow.com/2014/06/04/406133-please-ambassador-ford-name-me-a-moderate-syrian-rebel/

    Video Clip (1:47):
    http://billmoyers.com/2014/06/19/what-should-we-do-about-iraq/
    In this two minute video Bacevich says the question to ask is whether 30 years of America’s military intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and Somalia has resulted in more stability, democracy and improved relations with the US. “If the answer is yes, then let’s keep trying. But if the answer to those questions is no, then maybe it’s time for us to recognize that this larger military project is failing and is not going to succeed simply by trying harder.”

    Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

  3. Ron Beal on said:

    NO, I did not read the entire article, but after reading the first few lines I knew I was reading an opinion… I really don’t have that much time…
    Where did the ISIS suddenly ‘appear’? It is really not that hard to figure out: They were birthed by the support from the Obama White House, OWH, in the form of all requested military hardware, anti-aircraft, ground to air rockets, NATO hollow point ammo, automatic weapons, exploding bullets, gas, chemicals, tanks, HumVees, clothing and anything else the “moderates” needed to overturn the government of Syria! That has been the OWH goal from the beginning – destroy the national pride of the country, replace the leader with a NATO friendly puppet and the OWH will then tell the country to bend over… The OWH, i.e., the USA is attempting to become a world dictator, dictating to all countries what they can and cannot do, and what they will and will not do, even European countries. Many in the EU are now telling BHO to flip off, no longer will they kneel in his presence.
    Where to: The goal of the OWH is total, nuclear war across Europe! The destruction of the middle east as sovereign nations, the destruction of Israel and the destruction of Russia.
    You need to read the “Paper from Iron Mountain” and you will recognize the blueprint being followed around the world.
    Retired military, Commissioned Officer, Vietnam Vet, General Staff Officer, Intelligence.