Obama has come under fire for this decision, with many arguing that the only way to counter the rise of the Jihadis is to arm and support more moderate elements, such as the Free Syrian Army. This view is popular among some Republicans, as well as a wide circle of foreign policy analysts. The underlying assumption among analysts is that the US, and the west more broadly, should adopt a ‘sticks and carrots’ approach to encourage the armed rebel groups to fall in line with the political opposition and isolate the more radical elements thus weakening their influence.
Those calls are voiced by analysts that have demonstrated that they really understand the dynamics of the conflict in Syria, particularly in terms of the military, geo-strategic and logistical aspects. The option appears seductive because it appears as a logical extension of this body of knowledge and the analysis built on top it. It is nevertheless a delusion. At the heart of this is characteristic arrogance that assumes that favourable outcomes could be orchestrated through a calibrated policy of political, financial and military support.
This is particularly relevant when it comes to stemming the rise of Jabhat al-Nusra. There’s no better example than that of two decades of attempting to ‘contain’ Hezbollah in Lebanon through a combination of political backing of its internal opponents and an aggressive strategy of isolating it internationally. There are those who are still convinced that Hezbollah’s Shiite support base could be weakened through such measures, despite the reality on the ground that shows unwavering core support for Hezbollah.
There are of course large difference between Hezbollah and Jabhat al-Nusra, but there’s an important commonality in how they went about building their constituency through grass-roots action and doctrinal mobilisation. In fact, Hezbollah had a more difficult job because it had to replace various, predominantly leftist, parties, that had strong popular support and clear ideologies. Jabhat al-Nusra by contrast is working in a near political and organisational vacuum, the bland statements by Syrian opposition leaders abroad about the open pluralistic society they want are hardly inspirational.
To counter that, the emerging policy option suggests arming and supporting the more moderate elements. The mistake here is assuming that weapons and financial support can compensate for lack of or weak popular support. Furthermore, it totally ignores the way in which Jabhat al-Nusra and the multitude of Islamist brigades and groups will be able to use that to galvanise further support, as Hezbollah has done successfully in the past by seizing on evidence of external support for its opponents.
Many missed the reactions to the listing of Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organisation by the US. I was taken aback by the extent to which even secular friends who are opposed to Jabhat al-Nusra considered it an attack on the uprising. The ‘arming the moderates’ option is an exercise in abstract political logic that is entirely oblivious to the fast-changing social and political dynamics in Syria. The military and strategic snapshot it relies on provides only half of the picture.
I personally think rebels are entitled to accept weapons from any side, provided it doesn’t come with political conditions. This is not about the principle of arming the rebels, but that of orchestrating likely political outcomes by external powers. What makes it worse, is the US doesn’t even have a clear outcome in mind for Syria and the focus of policy seems to be averting the worst options. (For example, consider its reluctant support of the National Coalition).
The delusion that needs to be confronted is the myth of ‘constructive meddling’ and the arrogance behind it. We should accept that there are things that are not under our control and, more importantly, should not be. Syria isn’t a laboratory.
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