The House Intelligence Committee has just approved the Obama administration's plan to arm the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel forces, despite their "strong reservations." The committee's decision was almost unanimous with just one member, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D) of California, dissenting on the grounds "that the modest chance for success of these plans does not warrant the risk of becoming entangled in yet another civil war."
Indeed, taking the step to arm the rebels is an incredibly risky move. The committee's members no doubt seek to mitigate political backlash in their home districts by voicing their "strong reservations" — particularly because 54% of the American electorate, mostly Republicans and independents, disapprove of arming the rebels.
In addition to the cost and the high potential of instigating a proxy war in Syria, no doubt the most prevalent dilemma on lawmakers' minds is that although the U.S. will seek to carefully control the weapons to ensure that only moderates receive them, it is impossible to regulate a war zone. The weapons in question could easily make their way into the hands of the Jabhat Al-Nusra or other Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamists.
Additionally, the Obama administration's plan is a convenient way of bypassing Congressional approval, the uncooperative UN Security Council, and other international legal restrictions on providing military aid to overthrow other governments. Instead of coming from the military, which would be subject to more conventional, transparent channels, arms shipments will arrive in Syria as part of a CIA covert operation. This obscures the more minute details of the plan from the American public, including the price tag.
Although the U.S. will take steps to ensure that the light arms and ammunitions only fall into the hands of the FSA, there is no guarantee that the FSA will keep U.S. weapons out of the hands of their Islamist allies. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's Aleppo governor, Abu Atheer, states that the Islamists are buying arms from the FSA, including 200 anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons.
It is, however, unclear how long the tenuous alliance between the FSA and Islamist forces will last. On July 12th, Al-Qaeda affiliated soldiers murdered an FSA commander, Kamal Hamami, at a checkpoint near Latakia. This incident highlighted the heightened tensions between the two umbrella groups, as Islamists continue to arrest and harass FSA affiliates in areas under their control.
There is a strong likelihood that there will be a civil war within a civil war between the two factions, and such a conflict is all but guaranteed once the Assad regime is finally deposed. In the event of war between the FSA and Islamists, U.S. arms would arguably provide an advantage to the FSA. Unfortunately, it is equally as likely that the Islamists could acquire the weapons through battle after defeating FSA forces.
For every American, this should raise specters of the consequences of U.S. actions in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In the spirit of the Cold War, the CIA funded and provided arms to the mujahideen, ostensibly in response to the Soviet Union's invasion and atrocities in the country. Among the mujahideen, however, were Islamist extremists who would later become the Taliban. The Taliban's hosting of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda eventually led to 9/11 and the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
Thus, it stands to reason that once the Assad regime falls, Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamists could use U.S. arms to impose their brutal, ignorant interpretations of Sharia law across the country and launch major terrorist attacks against the U.S. and its allies, perhaps even prompting the eventual U.S. invasion of Syria a decade down the line.
Furthermore, although the misguided attempts to arm the FSA are presumably meant to end the war more quickly, the United States's blatant material aid to one side in a civil war could prompt an influx of weapons to Alawite forces from the Assad regime's allies. To be sure, Iran is already arming the regime and has even sent its own soldiers to fight with Al-Assad's forces on the ground in June as a direct response to Obama's initial decision to arm the opposition.
Failing to learn from the proxy wars and arms races of the Cold War, the Obama administration's strategic folly has already prompted more robust Iranian intervention in the country, which could continue to escalate. U.S. actions could also prompt Russia to increase weapons sales to the Assad regime and its allies, fueling an endless cycle of militarization, ultimately prolonging the conflict by transforming it into a de facto proxy war.
Lastly, although the Assad regime is brutal and repressive, indiscriminately massacring civilians throughout the war, the FSA is also responsible for war crimes. However, similar exterminations and attacks on civilians by the FSA have been less vocally condemned by the U.S. and the west.
Although the Assad regime lost the miniscule amount of legitimacy it had in its violent repression of the Arab Spring protests, the U.S. must apply equal standards of human rights to both sides of the conflict. Sending arms to soldiers who abuse civilian populations and fuel sectarian violence is a tacit endorsement of their behavior and merely encourages it.
Many isolationist Americans will argue that Syria is not the U.S.'s concern, but a conflict that has left over 93,000 people dead and displaced more than 1.6 million others warrants intervention and aid from the international community, including the U.S. However, arming the FSA will only contribute to an arms race, expanding the violence as weapons fall into the hands of extremists.
Instead, the U.S. could best show its support for Syria by increasing its humanitarian assistance to refugees and their host countries. Years from now, when the war is over, this will create more goodwill towards the U.S. among the general Syrian population than arming one specific faction in a very broad, vast conflict ever could.