The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Weapons Flowing to Jihadists in Syria

David Sanger reports for the NYT:

Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats.

That conclusion, of which President Obama and other senior officials are aware from classified assessments of the Syrian conflict that has now claimed more than 25,000 lives, casts into doubt whether the White House’s strategy of minimal and indirect intervention in the Syrian conflict is accomplishing its intended purpose of helping a democratic-minded opposition topple an oppressive government, or is instead sowing the seeds of future insurgencies hostile to the United States.

“The opposition groups that are receiving the most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it,” said one American official familiar with the outlines of those findings, commenting on an operation that in American eyes has increasingly gone awry.

As Via Meadia warned, worrying about Syria and doing next to nothing is not an intelligent policy of disengagement. Doing nothing now increases the chances we have to do something big later on, if, in the worst case, Jabhat al-Nusra militants get their hands on Assad’s chemical weapons.

The policy of relying on Qatar and Saudi Arabia to arm the rebels results in the Gulf sheikdoms hand-picking the brigades they want to be the most well-armed. “Hard-line Islamists,” Sangar writes, are the ones who benefit.

Governor Romney said in a speech that if he were in the White House he would make sure that rebel groups “who share our values” get the weapons, but like Obama he would rely on the Saudis and Qataris to handle distribution, giving the U.S. only limited sway over the final destination of the weapons.

Hopefully the Obama administration is doing its own reconnaissance of rebel groups, as a recent trip by CIA director David Petraeus to Turkey suggests. Putting CIA officers in the region to build working relationships with the non-jihadi Syrian rebel brigades is a tough assignment, but one that is much more attractive than dealing with terrorists with WMD.

In the beginning of the turmoil in Syria, the Obama administration jumped all over the rebel cause and placed the United States firmly behind regime change. If Sanger’s story is right, we did this without any idea who was in the Syrian resistance or what they wanted — and we haven’t been able to make much progress in figuring that out ever since. Right now, as the west struggles helplessly for a way out of its policy dilemma, and the United Nations asks Iran for help in arranging a cease fire, Putin looks much smarter than the White House.

There are very good reasons for supporting the cause of regime change in Syria; our strategic interests and humanitarian instincts for once are aligned. But to paint ourselves in a corner, demanding that Assad step down without having any idea who was organizing against him or what they intended seems well, a little premature. It’s a mistake that would be more understandable in the first year of a presidential administration during the shakedown cruise rather than something done when, in theory at least, the national security team has got its act together.

Back when President Obama was running for office and the Democratic foreign policy establishment was whaling the tar out of the Bush administration for its mistakes in the Middle East, Bush critics often seemed to assume that there were some perfectly simple and elegant solutions that the clueless Bush people were too stupid and crude to employ. Now it is the Obama administration whose nostrums aren’t working — in Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt and Syria it is hard to see exactly what good has been done.

The Middle East is hard and the answers aren’t easy or clear. The Obama administration has wanted to point to the Middle East as a shining example of its new style of foreign policy. There are some bright spots: the coalition against Iran has been firmed up and to its credit the administration has continued to push against an Iranian bomb. Overall, however, at the moment, we are not impressed. It is not at all clear that the Middle East is better off than it was four years ago, or that American interests are better secured.

Published on October 15, 2012 9:17 am