US Secretary of State John Kerry has announced a shift in American policy in the Syrian Civil War. The Americans will now provide direct, non-lethal aid to the rebels. The price tag is $60 million. Mr. Kerry said, “The US decision to take further steps now is the result of the brutality of superior armed force propped up by foreign fighters from Iran and Hezbollah. President Assad is out of time and must be out of power.” America needs to proceed with caution, however, because of the risks should the policy fail and the risks if it should succeed.
From the beginning of the conflict, this journal has argued for arming of the rebels by regional powers. Without arms, the rebels were doomed. However, if the guns and ammo came with the stars and stripes on the packing crates, it would undermine the rebels’ political position. As hard as it is for many in the US to believe, America is not universally beloved and admired. Many would view direct arming of the rebels as proof that they were
mere puppets of the CIA and Wall Street. While it is not true, perceptions are vitally important, and the perception here would be counter-productive. Saudi and Qatari weapons have no such stigma.
Although it is unlikely, those arming or otherwise aiding the rebels would suffer most were the Assad regime to triumph. Obviously, a victorious Assad government would focus its ire on those who tried to topple it, and that would include nations that provided guns and money. And it is doubtful that the dictator would distinguish between donors of lethal aid and those who provided food and bandages.
Nevertheless, there is a sense that the Assad regime is in a death spiral and that it is all going to end in a burned out bunker and suicide. Should the government collapse, the risk lies in what comes next. In Afghanistan, the Americans were only concerned about getting the Soviets out. As a result,
they armed and trained the very people who would destroy the World Trade Center years later. While arming the rebels is the right thing to do, making sure a Taliban regime does not sit in Damascus is no less important.
For this reason, non-lethal aid direct from the US makes sense. It allows America access to the rebels to assess who is and who isn’t reliable. At the same time, it ensures that America cannot be accused of taking sides among the rebel factions. When it is clear which faction among the rebels merits trust, that policy can be amended to arm reliable allies.
This is, of course, neo-colonialism, but it is a benign form. If the Syrian people can overthrow the dictatorship with arms from the outside, and if they can then institute a government acceptable to most Syrians, the worst symptoms of foreign interference will not arise. Roosevelt likened Lend-Lease, which kept Britain armed as it stood alone against Hitler, to letting one’s neighbor use one’s hose while the neighbor’s house was on fire. So, it is here. Helping the Syrians free themselves is noble, but if they trade the Ba’athism of Assad for the Fascislam of Al Qaeda, everyone loses. Unlike the previous administration, this one appears to understand that one must plan for the day after.