In the war-torn country of Syria, the situation is getting worse with every passing day.
About 70,000 people have died in the country's civil war over the past two years, according to the latest United Nations estimate. Food shortages and a lack of medical supplies are taking a serious toll. Millions of people have been displaced, both internally and abroad.
The rebels have repeatedly called for international assistance, and they’ve gotten some. Donor countries pledged more than $1.5 billion for Syria and its refugees at a January U.N. conference. About $385 million in humanitarian aid has been disbursed by the U.S., complemented by $115 million in nonlethal support for the fighters.
But most analysts agree that a full intervention, complete with Western boots on the ground, is unfathomable. The implementation of a no-fly zone to lessen Syrian President Bashar Assad’s air-strike capabilities is also unlikely, because it would require Western air power.
“With the U.S. having gotten into dealing with a very difficult insurgency in Iraq and likewise having faced another insurgency in Afghanistan, with these two wars having become among the longest in American history, I don’t think there is a great appetite in this country for intervening,” said Brian Michael Jenkins, a counterterrorism expert and senior adviser at the Rand Corp.
That leaves diplomacy, which has been hampered by China’s and Russia's veto power in the U.N. Security Council; humanitarian aid, which is rolling in but apparently has had trouble reaching the civilians and rebels who need it most; and arming the opposition, which has had limited success so far.
But some foreign arms have been making their way to the Syrian opposition, and a growing body of evidence indicates the U.S. is covertly working to get those weapons into the right hands. This is something Washington has attempted to do several times before, but the results of those efforts have been less than inspiring.
Western officials agree that helping Syrian rebels defeat the brutal Assad regime is a worthwhile cause, but recent reports suggest some of that assistance has already benefited jihadist groups. And if history is allowed to repeat itself, things could ultimately fall apart.
Making It Official
The Syrian rebellion began in earnest on March 11, 2011, when protests erupted in response to the arrest and torture of minors who had offended security forces by scrawling a revolutionary slogan on the side of a building. Since then, the conflict has become increasingly violent. Assad’s heavily armed forces are battering down on the rebel fighters, who have coalesced under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, or FSA.
The humanitarian situation right now is dismal, according to Racan Alhoch, a Syrian-American who spent 16 days in Syria this month. He and a team of activists worked independently to deliver medical supplies to health-care facilities and to donate cash to some of the neediest families -- often widows with children -- in hard-hit towns and villages.
Meanwhile, the battle raged around them. Alhoch was targeted by snipers and survived, but three of the opposition fighters he met lost their lives over the span of a couple weeks. He noted that many of the rebels were hindered by a lack for firepower.
“We visited three different provinces and several villages in each province, and we asked FSA leaders about their weapons," Alhoch said.
“They all said pretty much the same thing. The vast majority of their guns were bought right from the regime -- corrupt officials sold them. Another portion of their weapons was bought off the black market from Turkey or Jordan, which made them very expensive. And on three different occasions, we met men who were making mortars and missiles for the FSA. Those aren’t very powerful, nor are they accurate. But they get the job done.”
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives put forward a bill to arm the rebels this month. The Free Syria Act of 2013, introduced March 21 by Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., would increase economic and humanitarian assistance for Syrian fighters and civilians, while also authorizing the administration to supply arms to rebels.
President Barack Obama has already turned down recommendations to arm the opposition, even when those recommendations came from cabinet members such as former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, as well as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin E. Dempsey and former CIA Director David Petraeus. Obama explained that he did not want American weapons to fall into the hands of extremists currently operating in Syria.
The House bill calls for rebel brigades to be “appropriately vetted” and all arms “directed only to forces that support the establishment of a democratic and peaceful Syria.” But it doesn’t specify how that might be accomplished considering the complications on the ground.
The opposition began as -- and remains, at its core -- a secular struggle to overthrow an authoritarian government. But many of the loosely linked brigades fighting the Assad regime have incorporated Islamist aims into their mission, or at least into their rhetoric. These groups range from moderately Islamist outfits such as Liwaa al-Tawhid, which identifies as a part of the FSA, to more conservative groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, whose members have called for the countrywide implementation of Shariah, or Islamic law.
Then there are jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which operates as an extension of al Qaeda’s Iraqi franchise and has been declared a terrorist organization by the United States. Jabhat al-Nusra boasts foreign connections and members with years of fighting experience, making the shadowy group invaluable to the uprising.
Despite all this -- and belying the president’s apparent resistance -- there is evidence that the U.S. has participated in the dispersal of military equipment that has already fallen into the hands of Islamist groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra.
Twisting Their Arms
Persian Gulf states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been orchestrating weapons shipments into the conflict for months. The arms are typically sent to Turkey and shipped into Syria via ground transport.
Compared with the heavy weaponry employed by the Syrian regime, most of the equipment sent to opposition fighters has been light. It includes rocket-propelled grenades, automatic rifles, ammunition and some anti-tank weaponry originating in Croatia.
Hugh Griffiths, who leads the Countering Illicit Trafficking-Mechanism Assessment Projects at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or Sipri, noted that flight patterns of recent months evince the existence of a clandestine operation to arm the opposition.
“There are three major flows: Croatia to Jordan, Qatar to Turkey and Saudi Arabia to Turkey. That’s the trend. These highly indicative flight patterns are anomalies,” Griffiths said, adding that many of the flights from Croatia to Jordan have secured diplomatic permission for overflight, which implies that they may be carrying dangerous goods or munitions of war.
“It’s fair to say that the level of coordination involving so many U.S. allies suggests U.S. involvement,” he added.
Last week, Eliot Higgins -- a Leicester, England-based arms tracker whose blog, Brown Moses, has become a highly respected source of information about Syrian weaponry -- pointed to evidence that Jabhat al-Nusra fighters have been using weapons originating in Croatia.
Statements by the jihadist brigade have included photographs of fighters using an M60 recoilless gun and an M79 Osa -- both anti-tank weapons with Yugoslavian origins. Higgins also noted previous instances of Islamist groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, using similar weapons.
The New York Times corroborated the reports of Croatian arms shipments and added evidence of U.S. involvement, citing American officials who said CIA operatives are helping Gulf states purchase the arms from Croatia and direct them toward properly vetted rebel brigades. But moderate and secular opposition groups -- the ones favored by Western officials -- sometimes interact with Islamist or jihadist groups, making it very difficult to prevent anti-tank weaponry from falling into the hands of al Qaeda-linked fighters.
These concerns have limited foreign arms assistance, and Alhoch noted that most of the rebels he met in Syria were still desperate for weapons.
“I think the U.S. is being very lazy,” he said. “There's no reason they can’t recruit people to get on the ground and get actual intel on who they should arm and who they shouldn’t. And if FSA fighters are told to keep these weapons out of the wrong hands, I think they would absolutely honor that because they wouldn’t want to jeopardize the assistance.”
In the best-case scenario, arming the opposition would hasten the fall of the Assad regime, which would be a welcome development for Syrian revolutionaries and Western powers. But Washington worries that an influx of arms would instead prolong the bloody battle, or empower jihadist militants and turn Syria into a haven for extremism -- a long-term threat not only to Syria’s secularists, minorities and moderates, but also to the West.
My Enemy’s Enemy
If the reports are true, this wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. has been involved in covert support for foreign forces. The same was done in Iraq and Afghanistan during the 1970s and '80s. It is too early to tell how Syria’s uprising will play out in the end, but the results of earlier American efforts sound cautionary notes.
This famous photograph of President Ronald Reagan dates back to 1983. He is meeting with members of Afghanistan’s mujahedeen, who were at that time battling Soviet forces that had invaded the country in December of 1979. The mujahedeen sought to defend their territory and wrest power from the pro-Soviet Afghan officials in the capital city of Kabul. Caught up in the Cold War, the U.S. had good reason to sympathize.
American support for the mujahedeen began during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, even before the Soviet troops rolled into Afghanistan, according to Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinksi.
“It was July 3, 1979, that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention,” Brzezinksi said in 1998 remarks published by the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur and quoted by the Center for Research on Globalization. He added that a Soviet intervention was not Washington’s goal, but only an anticipated side effect.
The Soviet war in Afghanistan was long and costly. Moscow, which began withdrawing its troops in 1988, estimated that more than 13,000 of its soldiers had been killed. The withdrawal was due in part to the CIA’s Operation Cyclone, which channeled funding through Pakistan to help the mujahedeen wear down Soviet and Afghan Marxist troops.
As that war ended and Afghanistan spiraled into chaos, mujahedeen fighters coalesced to become the Taliban, an Islamist fundamentalist group that would take over the country in 1996. A Pakistan-based organization that had been established by Osama bin Laden to help fund the mujahedeen simultaneously evolved to become al Qaeda, and the two groups maintained strong links.
American and allied troops ousted the Taliban from Kabul in November 2001, two months after al Qaeda operatives perpetrated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America.
Brzezinski, who was unavailable to comment for this story, was asked in 1998 -- when the Taliban and al Qaeda were extant but not yet a major threat to the West -- if he regretted the decision to fund the mujahedeen.
“Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea,” Brzezinski said. “It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap, and you want me to regret it?”
It is indeed possible that American aid to the mujahedeen played a major in role in hastening the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but newer threats have since emerged. Almost 3,000 people were killed on American soil in 2001, and more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers have died in the ongoing Afghan war.
The recent bloodshed is not necessarily a direct consequence of U.S. support for the mujahedeen -- decades passed between those events, making chains of cause-and-effect difficult, if not impossible, to trace.
“I don’t want to say that al Qaeda and the Taliban are direct blowbacks from external support for the mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation,” the Rand Corp.'s Jenkins said.
“But the fact is that contest did contribute to what was perceived as a global jihad against the Soviet invaders,” he added. “And over a period of years, that morphed into what we have been dealing with over the last decade and a half. Therefore, there should be great concern as to what would be the long-term consequences of the provision of military assistance, particularly in the form of weapons, to the anti-government forces in Syria.”
Iraq, too, has been the beneficiary of covert assistance from the U.S.
When the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 began, American diplomatic relations with Iraq were nonexistent: They had been severed in 1967 due to Iraq’s participation in the Six-Day War. But for Washington, Iran’s offense was more recent. It had been an American ally until the population revolted against the U.S.-backed Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s autocratic rule in 1979 and established an Islamic republic. Tehran’s relationship with Washington further deteriorated during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1981.
After Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, spurred by border disputes and fears of a similar Shiite revolt in Iraq, it became clear that Iraqi forces would not win easily. The Carter administration began to plan for a covert American intervention. Reagan, who took office in 1981, followed through by sending his envoy Donald Rumsfeld to meet with Hussein in Baghdad in 1983.
The U.S. has never admitted to the direct shipment of arms to Iraq during the 1980s. But according to Joyce Battle, analyst and publications director with the National Security Archive at George Washington University, the American government funded Iraq and provided other forms of overt support.
“The U.S. government acknowledged that it encouraged its regional allies, such as Egypt, to provide military assistance to Iraq. Unlike direct military assistance, this was not prohibited by official U.S. policy,” Battle said. “The U.S. provided intelligence assistance to Iraq during the war, including information from satellite imagery. This is not denied by the U.S. government.”
Furthermore, declassified documents published by the National Security Archive make it clear that dual-use equipment, which can be used for military or nonmilitary purposes, was being shipped to Iraq by American firms with the understanding that they would be employed in the war.
That’s not to say Reagan sought a quick and easy Iraqi victory. In 1986, the Iran-Contra scandal broke, revealing that Iran had also received weapons from the U.S. via Israel. The goal of those transactions was partly to arrange for the release of American hostages held by Iranians in Lebanon and partly to fund anti-communist fighters in Nicaragua.
In the end, neither Iraq nor Iran won the battle definitively. But both arms recipients would become major adversaries to Washington.
Hussein went on to invade Kuwait in 1990, prompting the seven-month Gulf War that killed hundreds of U.S. and allied troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis. Then came two decades of strong U.N. sanctions, which crippled the Iraqi economy.
Hussein became an enemy of the state one more time in 2003, when American forces rolled into Baghdad to topple the regime on suspicions of Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. They turned out not to exist. More than 4,800 coalition troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians lost their lives in that war, which morphed into battle against insurgents shortly after Hussein’s regime fell.
Meanwhile, Iran has remained a staunch enemy of the West in general and Israel in particular. It is currently supplying weapons to the Syrian military, probably with Baghdad’s permission to use Iraqi airspace. In that context, Syria’s conflict is part of an ongoing story of shifting alliances and recurring conflict in the Levant.
“The level of destruction and civilian suffering [in Syria] seems analogous to that experienced by Iraqis following the 1990s sanctions regime and the U.S. invasion and occupation,” Battle said. “I say this without any nostalgia for the rule of the Assads or the former status quo in Syria.”
One More Time?
As discussion heats up regarding the West’s role in Syria’s ongoing conflict, America’s roles in wars of decades past cannot be ignored. To say they had long-term consequences is an understatement -- they at least partly precipitated the two most costly, deadly and dispiriting American wars in recent memory.
But it is also important to note that historical precedents make for dangerous points of comparison. Things have changed since the 1980s, and Syria is vastly different from both Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a domestic conflict rather than an international one, and Assad -- strengthened by support from Iran and a history of weapons trade with Russia -- has proven a formidable enemy.
One of the most significant differences between past and current interventions has to do with their ostensible goals. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the aims of Western actors were geopolitical ones first and foremost: the containment of Iranian or Soviet forces.
There are similar motives at work in Syria as well, because the fall of Assad would weaken both Hezbollah and Iran. But this time humanitarian concerns are more clearly at play. Tens of thousands of civilian men, women and children have been killed by regime forces in Syria. The calls for Western action have come from activists of all stripes -- and from American politicians on both sides of the aisle.
“History shows that there's nearly always a risk that clandestine arms transfers can involve blowback,” Griffiths noted. “But history also shows that in many cases, doing nothing may be just as bad.”
Can major world powers stand by as Syrian civilians suffer massive losses with every passing day? That ethical question can stand apart from historical precedent and geopolitical concerns, and humanitarian-minded officials and activists would respond with an emphatic “No.”
But no matter how you approach it, the long-term effects of any action must be weighed by all actors, Jenkins emphasized.
“The world has spent the better part of the last two decades dealing with the effluent of the conflict in Afghanistan,” he said. “Even if Assad were to fall tomorrow, we will be dealing with the effluent of the Syrian civil war for years to come.”
For now, Alhoch said, the humanitarian issue is the most pressing. The medical and monetary aid he dispersed on the ground was not enough. “There are millions of people displaced inside and outside Syria," he said. "Some humanitarian assistance is getting in, but none is sustainable.”
For the 70,000 -- at the very least -- who have died so far, for their bereaved friends and family, for refugees who now number more than 1 million and for the rebels who began this revolution with a vision of a fair and transparent democracy, the future looks grim. But when it comes to intervention, the American track record so far is a worrisome one. A careful eye on long-term effects this time around is necessary for the U.S. and its allies, and for Syria.