Too Little, Too Late

A Rebel tries to locate a fighter plane as he stands on top of a anti aricraft gun in the village of Al-Rami, near the town of Ariha, in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on June 22, 2013. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images) A Rebel tries to locate a fighter plane as he stands on top of a anti aricraft gun in the village of Al-Rami, near the town of Ariha, in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on June 22, 2013. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

A Rebel tries to locate a fighter plane as he stands on top of a anti aricraft gun in the village of Al-Rami, near the town of Ariha, in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on June 22, 2013. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

President Obama’s decision to arm the Syrian opposition represents an important tactical shift in American policy towards Syria, over two years into the civil war. However, by itself, providing arms is not a strategy. Supplying arms to the Syrian opposition without a substantive strategy to build up the opposition, and without a clearly defined strategy for seeking a political settlement of Syria’s civil war merely adds fuel to an already-raging fire. The timing of the decision has also raised concerns over whether the US’s new tactical shift will detract from Washington’s wider strategy of securing a political solution.

The single greatest failure of the Friends of Syria group’s diplomatic efforts has been their inability to put their own differences aside and create a clear channel of financial and military support to build capacity within the Syrian opposition. As a result, the opposition has been in the throes of chaos as different states compete with one another for power, influence and control. This turbulent atmosphere has hampered the Syrian National Coalition’s ability to retain consensus-building leaders who could create and maintain substantive connections between the organization and the political and military opposition on the ground inside Syria. The efforts of General Idris’s military council to bring militias together under a single command and control structure has been weakened by the fact that these militias are receiving arms from a number of different members of the “Friends of Syria” group. To exacerbate these challenges, the opposition still has not received much of the funding pledged to its members by the international community.

With the Syrian opposition in chaos, President Obama’s decision to allow small arms to flow into a country already saturated with them raises a serious question: will these new arms have any impact on the American goal of securing a negotiated political settlement? In short, no. Would this decision have made a difference if it had been taken twelve months ago? Arguably, yes.

In June of 2012, the differences between the armed militias fighting against the regime were less significant, and the US could have used the arms to incentivize some of these groups to unite in a single command structure and as a result, isolate the extremist groups operating in Syria. Since then, these different militias have gained a number of patrons and, naturally, differences have grown between them. American arms now will only strengthen some groups, but groups who do not share American interests will continue to function from their own funding streams. These arms are also unlikely to change the military situation in a way that is unfavorable for President Assad and his allies.

For the US to make a success of arming the opposition in Syria, the US would have to become the biggest and best supplier and trainer in town. At this point, President Obama has shown no interest in fulfilling this role, and so late in the civil war, it is arguably not in the US interest to do so. The president should redouble his efforts to broker a political settlement, instead of becoming distracted by issues of quasi-military tactics with inherently limited effects. Committing to military half-measures will only raise the risk of the US entering deeper into the fog of war by circumstance, instead of by strategic calculation.


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