There’s a whole range of reasons to be sensibly skeptical of American involvement in the Syrian conflict – our national interest there is poorly defined, we have little notion what any given policy prescription ought to achieve, and we might well make things worse. But since the commentariat began kicking around the question of U.S. intervention, a misguided thread has dominated the contrary side of the conversation. We shouldn’t arm/help the rebels, the theory goes, because there are al-Qaeda fighters among their ranks; our weapons might end up in their hands, and we would be complicit in the violence they do with them, guilty of abetting their cause.
By the time this comment goes to print, events will have outpaced it; I can’t say where the debate on our Syrian policy will go, or how the conflict will evolve. Where the debate has already been, though, is a telling and frustrating microcosm of what we talk about when we talk about foreign policy. In brief, there’s a confused understanding of our responsibility and/or culpability abroad where intervention is concerned, one that draws a bright line between action and inaction as if the former were naturally risky and the latter by its nature conservative and restrained. That’s emotionally appealing (the ghost of Iraq has a great deal to do with why), but it’s a distinction that collapses, fast, under scrutiny. The Syrian question is as good an illustration of that as any.
First, it’s worth recognizing that yes, militants of the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusrah Front have been thick as thieves on the battlefield with the Syrian opposition (though that alliance of convenience seemed to be fraying as of July). If we send arms to Syria, I don’t doubt some of them will make their way to al-Nusrah by mistake, by happenstance, or via sympathetic Islamist groups. Milton Bearden, the CIA officer behind the arming of Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s, provided Foreign Policy with an appropriately cynical take on that risk: “People have criticized the CIA effort in Afghanistan because we gave weapons to Islamic fundamentalists. Well, I don’t know how many Presbyterians there are over there.” Given that fact of life, it’s entirely reasonable to be wary of sending Stinger missiles and other anti-aircraft weapons; it makes less sense to wobble on the question of light arms, for reasons that are largely our own doing
On that front, we ought to ask ourselves why more moderate rebels would throw in their lot with Qaeda-linked fighters in the first place. The answer is straightforward: al-Nusrah has been, virtually since its entry into the conflict, the best-equipped group fighting Bashar al-Assad. They don’t particularly need light arms, because they have them. While the U.S. debated aiding secular factions, deep-pocketed Islamists in the region jumped in to back their horse – and it paid dividends, with even moderate rebels obliged to rely on the well-organized, well-financed, and well-armed extremists. In other words, Western inaction helped create the conditions for the rise of jihadists in Syria. Waffling, we shot ourselves in the foot; we had an early opportunity to crowd out the influence of radicals within the rebellion, and we let it pass. We’re not any less responsible for that reality on the ground than we would be for any of our weapons that end up in their hands. The moderate factions of the revolution have long been crying for some help, for any help, and we could have done something, anything, to prop them up and purchase some good will. In sitting on our hands, we handed al-Nusrah something significantly more dangerous than a Stinger: the opportunity to build real military and political influence.
None of that is necessarily an argument for intervention now – it may be that we can improve that situation, but there’s always room to make things worse – or even for intervention more generally, but it certainly is a critique of the effort to erect a moral and political divide between the devil we abet and the devil we abide. History, of course, will happily sit in judgment of both, and both will in practice bear just as powerfully on American interests abroad. Non-complicity is a poor ideal; inaction isn’t a sensibly conservative default setting, but rather a choice for which we’ll pay or from which we’ll benefit just like any other choice in foreign policy.
There’s another responsibility in play here too of course: the responsibility to protect. It’s an open question whether the United States is doing more or less than it should for Syria today in a purely self-interested sense, and I don’t know that I feel qualified to judge on which side we’ve erred. All the same, it goes without saying that we’re doing less than we can. The humanitarian logic behind an intervention in Syria is the same as that behind the 2011 intervention in Libya; the distinction is, well, it would be more difficult in Syria. That calculus is entirely understandable. It’s also entirely transparent to the international community, and we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that the Syrian rebels don’t know exactly where they figure into our tally of costs and benefits. In moral terms, we can’t abjure the responsibility that comes with the ability to do great good or prevent great evil. In strategic terms, we can’t avoid being tarred and feathered in the hearts and minds of those that we – even if acting, by some measure or other, carefully and responsibly – declined to help.
In all likelihood, the Syrian conflict will continue for some time yet; the war sits now in a cruel stalemate. It has brought and will continue to bring enormous suffering to the Syrian people as they struggle to oust Assad. The American strategic stake in the fight will continue to be irretrievably confused, but the moral responsibility of the United States won’t diminish with each passing day or passing death. That’s the curse of great power status; what happens happens, and it happens on our watch. It’s hardly worth making a distinction between our actions and our inaction because neither our friends nor our enemies will. In our foreign policy, we ought to confront that reality forthrightly.