The Arms Dilemma in Syria

Much of Official Washington is clamoring for President Obama to arm the Syrian rebels, but the civil war in Syria is reminiscent of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan in which the Reagan administration ended up helping hard-line Islamists who then turned against the U.S., notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Reports that most arms being sent to Syria in the name of toppling Bashar Assad’s regime are winding up in the hands of “hard-line Islamic jihadists” recall a similar earlier experience in Afghanistan.

The United States, Saudi Arabia and other outsiders wished to use material support to Afghan rebels to help defeat the Soviets and to topple the Soviet-installed Najibullah regime in Kabul. Working through Pakistan as a conduit and middleman, the outside patrons had to bestow their largesse on several different Afghan militias, which collectively constituted the armed resistance in Afghanistan.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Photo credit: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr)

About half of the militias could be called hard-line Islamic jihadists. These also were the most effective fighters against the Soviets. If one wanted to use assistance in the form of arms shipments to defeat the Soviets and to do so sooner rather than later, these were the principal groups one needed to aid.

When Najibullah finally fell in 1992 (three years after the Soviet Union withdrew its own troops from Afghanistan), there was hardly a pause before the militias that had been allies in the war began fighting among themselves. The Afghan civil war simply moved into a new phase.

In addition to the resulting chaos setting the stage for the Taliban sweeping to power over most of Afghanistan a couple of years later, we are seeing today other legacies of this pattern of outside assistance more than 20 years ago. One of the most potent of the hard-line Islamist elements that was in the middle of the fight against the Soviets was the militia led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who would come to be seen as an enemy of the United States alongside the Taliban itself and the Haqqani group.

In Syria today as in Afghanistan three decades ago, it is illusory to think that the United States or anyone else on the outside of the fight can fine-tune where the arms go so that we deal only with groups to our liking while still getting a return on our investment in terms of hastening the fall of the regime that the fight is directed against. The opposition in Syria is if anything even more disorganized and disaggregated than was the opposition in Afghanistan.

It is not feasible to expect aid to hasten the defeat of Assad if the aid is limited to groups “who share our values,” as Mitt Romney has put it. Resistance groups in Syria are operating in an environment in which they would hardly have an opportunity to demonstrate adherence to any such values.

And even if the leaders of some groups seem to express allegiance to particular values, we can have no confidence that the same concepts or terms mean the same thing to them as they do to us. Many people in that part of the world, for example, believe that democracy means nothing more than majority rule, with “majority” defined in terms of something like a religious sect.

There is no opportunity for the United States to do anything approaching precise management of a flow of arms. It is not as if the Defense Logistics Agency is on scene to parcel out the materiel. Other outside actors are needed to facilitate the flow. With the war in Afghanistan the key outside actor in that regard was Pakistan. In Syria today the Saudis and Qataris seem to be particularly important. They are likely to be less disturbed than we are by anything that smacks of hard-line Islamic jihadism.

We should not be surprised if in Syria, as in Afghanistan, the more extreme groups also tend to be the more effective ones in carrying the fight. What is going on in Syria is not some peaceful process of political change in which our “values” would mean much. It is instead a brutal civil war. Brutally extreme groups tend to be in their element in brutally extreme conflicts.

In light of all of the foregoing, we also should not be surprised that despite incessant hand-wringing about what is going on in Syria and expressed wishes that somehow this conflict could be pushed speedily to a successful conclusion, no one has offered any good ideas for how to do that.

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.)



4 comments for “The Arms Dilemma in Syria

  1. Rehmat
    October 17, 2012 at 9:48 am

    The US-Israel regime change in Syria has failed. The foreign armed insurgency has Russia-China-Iran-Iraq united behind Bashar al-Assad regime. Turkey’s Erdogan is losing public support on his suicidal policy on Syria in return for Saudi and Qatar promise of $700 billion investment in Turkey in the next 20 years and wishful thinking that Turkey will replace Iran as the regional power in the future with the help of the US, NATO and Israel.

    Barack Obama’s special envoy to Lebanon and Syria, Frederick Hof, who resigned from his post earlier this week – in a confidential document leaked last week has claimed that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defense minister Ehud Barak conducted intensive secret talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through him.

    According to Frederick Hof, the negotiations were based on Netanyahu’s willingness to return to June 4, 1967 lines, giving Damascus full control of the Golan Heights which was occupied by the Jewish army during its 1967 invasion of its neighboring Arab lands. What Netanyahu demanded in return was a comprehensive peace deal that would include an Israeli “expectation” for the severing ties between Damascus and Tehran. However, according to the US sources, the deal fell-apart as Bashar refused to severe his friendly ties with the Islamic Republic.

  2. F. G. Sanford
    October 17, 2012 at 11:17 am

    I wonder which “freedom fighters” the Jihadis in the Middle East would support if they decided to pick the people who “shared their values” in the United States? With all that oil money and the Citizens United decision in full sway, I wonder how soon the “Tea Party” and various other medieval fundamentalist religious lunatic organizations will start receiving big checks? Some of those militia movement types out there in the Montanas are bound to be relishing the possibilities. After all, the Taliban didn’t have any trouble putting prayer back in THEIR schools, now did they?

    • Rehmat
      October 17, 2012 at 2:12 pm

      The so-called “Jihadis” are CIA-Mossad recruits to fight their wars while demonizing Muslims and Islam for the benefit of the Zionist Jewish empire in the world.

      Afghans were far better under Wahhabi Taliban than they’re under US-NATO occupation which was conceived ten months before the Israeli 9/11 flase-flag operation. The occupation of Afghanistan was needed for the loot of the Caspian oil/gas reserves and opium for the Russian Jewish drug mafia.

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