There is a common refrain these days voiced by politicians who want to blame President Obama for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It goes something like this: “We all told the president to arm and train the moderate rebel forces in Syria back in 2012. He refused, and this led to the rise of ISIL.” The thinking is that had the United States strongly backed the so-called “moderate” Free Syrian Army (FSA), the more radical Syrian rebels affiliated with al-Qaeda would have been defeated or at least severely weakened, and thus would never have evolved into what is now ISIL.
It is an extremely shallow argument. But it’s a convenient one for those who do not like Mr. Obama, his leadership style, or his foreign policy in the Middle East — or all three. It’s also convenient for Democrats who are trying to distance themselves from Mr. Obama in the hope of improving their chances of getting elected.
It is no surprise that Senator John McCain regularly relies on this argument. But now Hillary Clinton has jumped on the bandwagon. Now, she too it seems was a proponent of arming and training the “moderates” in Syria, although that’s not exactly what she said in 2012. Here’s what she said back then in a televised interview with CBS News in response to the question, “The US has repeatedly said that it is reluctant to arm the dissidents. Why?”:
“First of all, we really don’t know who it is that would be armed. This is not Libya, where you had a base of operations in Benghazi, where you have people who were representing the entire opposition to Libya. You could get your arms around what it is you were being asked to do and with whom. We don’t have any clarity on that.”
The interviewer follows up with the question, “But Madam Secretary, what’s the fear? On the ground, what is the fear of arming the rebels?” Mrs. Clinton responds:
“Well, first of all, what are we going to arm them with, and against what? You’re not going to bring tanks over the borders of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan. That’s not gonna happen. So maybe at the best, you can smuggle in… automatic weapons. Where do you go? And to whom are you delivering them? We know that al-Qaeda, Zawahiri is supporting the opposition in Syria. Are we supporting al-Qaeda in Syria? Hamas is now supporting the opposition. Are we supporting Hamas in Syria? So I think, you know, despite the great pleas that we hear from those people who are being ruthlessly assaulted by Assad, if you’re a military planner or if you’re a Secretary of State, and you’re trying to figure out do you have the elements of an opposition that is actually viable, we don’t see that.”
Mrs. Clinton’s reluctance to arm the “moderates” in Syria in 2012 matched that of Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In a televised interview with Fareed Zakaria of CNN in February 2012, Gen. Dempsey said:
“I think it’s premature to take a decision to arm the opposition movement in Syria, because I would challenge anyone to clearly identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point.”
It is this issue of “lack of clarity” regarding the opposition in Syria that consistently surfaced in discussions within the Obama administration on whether to arm the “moderate” rebels.
In a USA Today article titled “Gen. Dempsey: Plans to arm Syrian rebels ‘conceptual’“published on February 10, 2013, Gen. Dempsey was quoted as saying that all of these discussions were “conceptual”, and that there was never a specific proposal to arm anyone in Syria. The article quoted Gen. Dempsey as saying there was a “menu of options” to try to determine which ones “should we begin to flesh out.” According to the article, Gen. Dempsey said, “Of the options that we’ve been considering, they all hinge on a much clearer understanding of the environment than I believe we currently have.”
This perspective provides a contextual framework for better understanding an article in The Wall Street Journal published on February 12, 2013, titled “Obama Blocked Rebel Arms,” which said, “Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed publicly for the first time at a Senate hearing on Thursday that they supported the proposal last year by senior officials including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-CIA director David Petraeus.”
The take-away point here is not who supported or opposed arming the “moderates” in Syria, but rather the fact that no one really knew who these so-called “moderates” were. There was never any clarity on this crucial point. So the argument of whether or not the US should have armed and trained the opposition in 2012 has really always been a moot one.
This was summed up well by Mr. Obama in a televised interview with Thomas Friedman of The New York Times. He said:
“It’s always been a fantasy, this idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists, and so forth, that that they were going to be able to battle a well-armed state, but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle hardened Hezbollah. That was never in the cards.”
Of course, now with the problem of ISIL, which wasn’t a problem in 2012, things have changed. In his speech last night, Mr. Obama said that the US will seek to arm and train the “moderates” (supposedly the FSA). He said he will ask Congress to authorize $500 million for this effort. What is important to understand here, though, is not that the Obama administration is any more confident about the success of the “moderates” in overthrowing the Assad government. If anything, the confidence is lower. The strategy is no longer about defeating Assad, but rather gaining cover for the US as it prepares to bomb ISIL targets within Syria.
By openly announcing to the world that the US will robustly back the “good” Sunni opposition in Syria, Mr. Obama is able to minimize the appearance of an under-the-table alliance with Mr. Assad’s Alawite dominated government, and thus risk angering more Sunnis who might then opt to join ISIL. It also reduces the appearance of being on the same side as the Russians and the Iranians — both of whom are strong supporters of the Assad government.
The reality is that the moment US warplanes start dropping bombs on ISIL forces in Syria, we will essentially be helping to guarantee that Mr. Assad remains in power. The ‘ole proverb “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” has perhaps never been more applicable. But the US can simply not afford to admit it.