The right call on arms for Syria

Trump can­celed a gov­ern­ment pro­gram that wasn’t work­ing.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - he Trump Matt Pur­ple is a fel­low at De­fense Pri­or­i­ties, a think tank launched in 2016 that ad­vo­cates for for­eign pol­icy re­straint, and the deputy ed­i­tor of Rare Pol­i­tics. By Matt Pur­ple

Tad­min­is­tra­tion re­vealed it had can­celed a CIA pro­gram to pro­vide Syr­ian rebels with arms and train­ing ear­lier this month, and I’ll give you three guesses as to how the story got framed. If you went with “mis­lead­ing in­sin­u­a­tions over Rus­sia,” you are cor­rect. The Wash­ing­ton Post, which broke the news, ran with the head­line: “Trump ends covert CIA pro­gram to arm anti-As­sad rebels in Syria, a move sought by Mos­cow.” An anony­mous quote in the story — “Putin won in Syria” — got trac­tion on­line, in print and on TV.

It was a sloppy con­fla­tion: Pol­icy that co­in­cides with Mos­cow’s aims is not the same as pol­icy meant to serve Mos­cow. In this case, there’s no ev­i­dence that Pres­i­dent Trump was act­ing un­der the thrall of Vladimir Putin. More likely the pres­i­dent axed the CIA ini­tia­tive be­cause — as many of us have been warn­ing since long be­fore Rus­sia sent its mil­i­tary to Syria — it wasn’t work­ing. Ad­di­tion­ally, it con­sti­tuted an un­wise in­ter­ven­tion in the Syr­ian civil war, which holds lit­tle in­ter­est and no good op­tions for the United States.

From the start, Amer­i­can weapons ship­ments had a cu­ri­ous habit of end­ing up in the hands of Al Qaeda and Is­lamic State fight­ers. Among nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples, the Pen­tagon ad­mit­ted in 2015 that U.S.-trained Syr­ian rebels had vol­un­tar­ily forked over their Amer­i­can-pro­vided equip­ment, in­clud­ing half a dozen pick­ups, to the Al Qaeda off­shoot Nusra Front. Is­lamic State sol­diers have been doc­u­mented run­ning around with our anti-tank mis­siles. Even early on, when train­ing and arms ef­forts were be­ing car­ried out through the Saudis and Qataris, one U.S. of­fi­cial ad­mit­ted, “The op­po­si­tion groups that are re­ceiv­ing the most of the lethal aid are ex­actly the ones we don’t want to have it.” More re­cently, even Charles Lis­ter, an ar­dent sup­porter of the Syr­ian re­bel­lion, has es­ti­mated that 10% to 15% of Amer­i­can equip­ment was lost to Al Qaeda and Is­lamic State.

The prob­lem is that try­ing to tease out a “mod­er­ate rebel” from the ex­trem­ists has be­come dev­il­ishly dif­fi­cult. The power amassed by the Nusra Front as late as 2012 was enough to guar­an­tee that Syr­ian democrats needed the ji­hadists to help them beat the As­sad regime. And so al­liances of con­ve­nience were made, many of the mod­er­ate groups be­came more ex­treme (some­times grad­u­ally, some­times with alarm­ing im­me­di­acy), and the re­bel­lion took on an over­all more Is­lamist char­ac­ter. The prob­lem was com­pounded by the sheer cun­ning of the Nusra Front — which spon­sored a re­lief depart­ment and food con­voys, win­ning over be­sieged lo­cals even as it de­clared its ul­ti­mate in­ten­tion to im­pose sharia law.

This was the in­sur­gency into whose hands the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion wanted to place Syria’s fu­ture. The im­pos­si­bil­ity of the Syr­ian project was only com­pounded by bu­reau­cratic in­ep­ti­tude, per­haps best re­vealed when the Pen­tagon’s coun­ter­part pro­gram man­aged to train so few rebels that the price tag was cal­cu­lated at $4 mil­lion for each fighter. The CIA’s ini­tia­tive was as­sumed to be more ef­fec­tive, but even then plenty of red­tape-tan­gled mud­dling has been doc­u­mented. In 2015, Congress con­sid­ered slash­ing the pro­gram’s fund­ing by up to 20%, and while specifics weren’t forth­com­ing, it must have taken some se­ri­ous dys­func­tion to dull law­mak­ers’ gen­er­ally gung-ho ap­proach to­ward Syria.

But side­line all those ob­jec­tions for a mo­ment. Zoom out on the map and think in terms of the greater Syr­ian war. The As­sad regime to­day is in a stronger po­si­tion than it was four years ago thanks to Rus­sia’s in­ter­ven­tion on its be­half. The re­bel­lion has had its vic­to­ries, some of them aided by Amer­i­can weapons, but over­all the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s train-and-arm ef­forts failed at their ob­jec­tive. So Trump can­celed a gov­ern­ment pro­gram that wasn’t work­ing. What’s wrong with that? Es­pe­cially when the al­ter­na­tive was to keep fuel­ing a bar­baric con­flict with weapons that could one day be turned on us.

The Syr­ian civil war is a deeply in­tri­cate bat­tle­field with nu­mer­ous fac­tions act­ing on myr­iad mo­ti­va­tions. It is im­pos­si­ble to siphon it into a facile, ca­ble news-ready, black-and-white nar­ra­tive. Trump’s de­ci­sion was about far more than ca­pit­u­la­tion to Rus­sia — it was the right call for Amer­i­can in­ter­ests, re­gard­less of whether it aligns with Rus­sian in­ten­tions. The Syr­ian civil war needs to be ended, not fur­thered by an­other round of fruit­less arms ship­ments.

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