Arming Syrian Rebels: The Definition of Insanity
Admittedly, one of the most overused clichés of all time is “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” However, I can think of nothing else that better describes America’s efforts to arm and train “moderate” rebels in Syria.
Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, many American policymakers have been obsessed with the idea that there is a large group of moderate Syrian Muslims that could be trained and armed to fight both the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and radical Islamic groups like ISIS and al Nusra (the Syrian branch of al Qaida). Accordingly, the United States started two parallel programs – one run through the CIA in conjunction with Gulf Arab states and another $500 million program run through the Pentagon but focused on ISIS – that were designed to arm and train thousands of mostly Syrian Arab rebels.
However, both programs have not produced the outcomes that many in Washington hoped for – mainly because the belief that there were large numbers of moderate Syrians willing to fight both Assad and the jihadists was mere fantasy. While at one point early in the Syrian civil war there was likely a not-insignificant number of moderate rebels who opposed Assad and who were not jihadis, the fact is that once both programs started in earnest several years ago, most of those moderate rebels had either been killed, fled the battlefield, or started fighting with ISIS and al Nusra. Accordingly, there were few willing recruits for both programs.
The Pentagon-run program only recruited about 100 or so volunteer fighters and was ultimately only able to successfully field about four or five rebels in Syria before the program was shut down. That was only about 0.1 percent of the original goal of training 5,000 rebels to fight ISIS. Even worse, several dozen rebels that were trained and armed as part of the Pentagon program surrendered to al Nusra almost immediately after entering Syria and handed their top-of-the-line American weaponry over to those al Qaida allies. The CIA program has not done much better and most of the groups it has supported are openly collaborating with radical Islamic groups in Syria.
Despite the demonstrated inability of both the CIA and the Pentagon to recruit, train, and equip a large force of moderate rebels in Syria, the Obama White House seems intent on doubling down on failure by trying to create yet another program to arm anti-ISIS moderates in Syria. Considering the fact that the previous attempts at arming and training a moderate rebel army have been failures, Congress should not fund any further Pentagon or CIA efforts to train and equip so-called moderate Syrian rebels. Based on previous results, doing so will only prolong the Syrian civil war and will possibly inadvertently strengthen radical Islamic groups like al Nusra and ISIS.
Additionally, considering that we live in era of tight defense budgets and increasing deficits, every dollar wasted on a failing defense program – whether it’s the Syrian rebel training program or the F-35 – is a dollar that could have gone towards more effectively training and equipping our troops in the field. Congress needs to keep this dynamic in mind every time they are asked to yet again spend more money on defense programs that have been proven failures. Doing otherwise is the definition of insanity.