Deciding to arm Syrian rebels is a mistake – the tragic consequences of which will be felt in the United States for years to come.
I do not want to criticize President Obama for deciding to take some action regarding Syria. However, I am not sure it serves U.S. interests, nor do I think it supports the cause of international human rights – something the United States believes it should stand up for. In deciding to arm Syrian rebels, who in fact did the president agree to help?
There are several groups that characterize and comprise the rebels who are fighting against Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad. The first is the Free Syrian Army, a group composed of former army members who defected early on to carry out the resistance. This group also claims to be non-sectarian, meaning they do not claim to be fighting for any particular ethnic or religious sect.
The second major faction in the rebel camp is the Syrian Liberation Front and the Syrian Islamic Front. Although probably smaller than the Free Syrian Army, this group is sectarian, fighting for Islamist ideology. Islamist means fundamentalist or extremist – the label the United States generally reserves for the real bad guys.
The last group is the Jabhat al-Nusra, and although the smallest of the three groups it probably is the fiercest and – one other important detail the media rarely illustrates – its members have pledged
allegiance to al-Qaida and the group is composed of many former members of the Iraqi insurgency.
Let us reflect on this last point: One of the groups fighting the Syrian government is composed of members of the insurgency in Iraq that already have waged combat against U.S. forces; seek to destroy the United States; and have pledged allegiance to al-Qaida, the group responsible for the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and which is our sworn enemy.
WHY DO I EMPHASIZE this last point? Because it is worth pausing and asking: Exactly which of these three groups is Obama arming? What are the chances that our arms shipments arrive in the hands of the Islamist sect of the resistance, or worse, in the hands of those who pledge support for al-Qaida, many of whom already are responsible for the deaths of American service members in Iraq?
Could you imagine just a few years ago that the United States, just finishing its major security operations in Iraq, would be responsible for funding those same elements in Syria? Further, let us remember how the United States has fared when it decides to fund and arm those who are opposed to American interests and the American way of life: Saddam Hussein against Iran in the 1980s, and the elements that would comprise the Taliban in their war against the Soviet Union. How did that work out for us?
Yet, here we go again.
I am not saying that the United States should do nothing. Obama should have acted with great vigilance at the start of the Syrian civil war. But now, the situation is grave and dangerous, with human rights abuses occurring on both sides. At this writing, the United Nations and other nongovernmental human rights organizations report that up to 100,000 civilians have died in the fighting. How bad is that number? Well, as you read this, someone else has been slaughtered. This is a stunning, tragic and, unfortunately, all-too-familiar consequence of dirty civil wars and ethnic violence.
But should we arm one group over another, especially when the group we side with is just as guilty of violating the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Absolutely not. Obama is making a mistake that will haunt the United States and its international legitimacy and reputation for years to come.
What atrocities are the rebels responsible for that makes arming them morally irresponsible by the United States? Just a few should suffice.
First, it is the rebels who are responsible for tearing the heart out of a Syrian solider and eating it. What horror this is. Yet this type of person is the type of person the United States could be funding and arming. Second, the Islamist groups fighting in Syrian have no doubt, even though it is not often reported in the American media, declared a war against the Christian population in Syria. Bishops, priests, monks and laypeople alike – Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic – have disappeared, and been harassed and killed. On July 2, CNN reported that it obtained footage of the rebels beheading a Catholic priest in Syria. The Vatican has confirmed this tragedy.
THESE ARE ONLY a couple of examples of rebel abuse, but there are thousands more committed by the rebel camp. Yet, this is the group your tax dollars could help fund and arm. I repeat: Your tax dollars are going to fund and arm rebel groups that are the sworn enemy of the United States, and that are responsible for gross violations of human rights.
It often is said that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. This is careless thinking when Enemy “A” contains links to al-Qaida and Enemy “B” is being helped by the Islamic Republic of Iran, who is perhaps one of a small number of states that pose a possible existential threat to the United States’ strategic interests. Further, the Syrian government is being backed by Hezbollah, considered to be a terrorist group by the United States.
What we are witnessing in Syria is a deadly ethno-religious civil war – one side with links to al-Qaida, whose No. 1 enemy is the United States; the other side with links to Iran, whose No. 1 enemy is the United States. Our best option is to stay out of this war before we make matters worse, and damage our strategic interest. However, something must be done to protect international human rights. Something must be done to protect the civilians of Syria and its Christian population.
What is to be done? Perhaps rather than arming one terrible group vs. the other, we should demand – and, more, support – the United Nations’ peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations in the area. Most importantly, we should be spending our money in humanitarian relief for those being killed, tortured and victimized by this hellish violence.
We must make a stand for human rights. Arming al-Qaida is certainly not that stand.
(The writer is an assistant professor of political science, and associate director of the Knowledge Integrated program, at Georgia Regents University Augusta.)