Global Policy Studies & International Security

Why Support the Syrian Rebels?

President Obama’s current strategy in Syria, to arm and train moderate rebels and execute airstrikes on the Islamic State, is problematic. The U.S. will have difficulty stabilizing Syria because the Syrian Civil War is a fractured hotbed of violent extremism and radical ideology. Instead, the U.S. must seek a threefold approach of militarily attacking the Islamic State; diplomatically coordinating support among Middle Eastern Sunni countries for strong, politically moderate Syrian leadership; and containing the effects of the Syrian Civil War within Syria.

Through supporting the Syrian rebels, Obama unintentionally supports the massacre of Shia Muslims and the growth of radical ideology. Since September 2013, the U.S. has supplied the rebels with nearly $1 billion in aid, including weapons, training, food, and medical supplies. Obama’s rationale behind this aid is to support the fight against a brutal dictator, support democracy, and suppress the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This logic is flawed because it does not acknowledge that the Syrian Civil War is religiously motivated. Since Hafez al-Assad gained control in the 1970’s, the Alawites, a Shiite sect and a religious minority, maintained control over the Syrian government. Syria’s embittered Sunni majority endured a tenuous religious freedom under the current president, Bashar al-Assad, and has occasionally been subjected to severe brutality from the Shabiha, Syria’s police. Inspired by the Arab Spring, years of religious frustration have erupted into a religiously and politically motivated Syrian Civil War where Sunnis massacre Shiite civilians. If the Syrian rebels are victorious, this brutal religious suppression will continue under the auspices of a U.S. supported leadership. This prediction is bolstered by the violent mistreatment of Shias that is consistent throughout many Sunni controlled Arab countries and by the radical Sunni factions that joined the Syrian rebels’ fight against Assad.

President Obama clings to the false hope that he is supporting a moderate democratic sect of Syrian rebels. In reality it is impossible to know the true intentions of the supposedly moderate rebels the U.S. is arming. The Syrian rebels are a mosaic of radical jihadi groups. Currently fighting are the Islamic State, the Islamic Front, Jabat al-Nusra, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and hundreds of local groups. These factions are in a constant state of flux; followers frequently ally themselves with different groups, and smaller groups are constantly being created, destroyed, and changing their stated goals. Even if a moderate group exists, it is impossible to prevent it from being perverted by the influx of radical Sunni fighters.

Aiding the Syrian Rebels is unwise, yet this does not mean I advocate aiding President Assad. Stability in Syria will benefit the U.S. and Assad’s regime has the ability to do this. However Assad is gaining support from Russia, a country under severe U.S. sanctions, and Hezbollah, considered a terrorist organization by the United States. The U.S. should not support a country that works closely with governments unfriendly to it. Assad has also suppressed peaceful protesters, used weapons of mass destruction against his own population, and refused to enact any concrete change to appease his country’s Sunni majority. These actions are at odds with U.S. values and should not be supported.

The U.S. policy of carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State (IS) is similarly ineffective, because weakening IS is counter-productive to Syrian stability. The IS controls about one third of Syrian territory and has a large support base, approximately 31,500 fighters from more than 80 countries. Weakening IS by targeting its leadership, funds, and supplies will only cause followers to flock to other terrorist groups like al-Qaeda rather than suppress the presence of radical Islam in Syria. In October 2014 Al-Qaeda took steps to form a united front with IS in Syria against the West, meaning Al-Qaeda is poised to take over operations should IS weaken. Assad’s forces are also capable of seizing area relinquished by IS. Assad is a strong player, with an army numbering approximately 150,000 and with strong supporters like Russia giving military aid.

Obama’s Syrian policy will not produce its intended results; therefore, I suggest refocusing U.S. attention towards supporting a strong, moderate, and democratic Syrian government and containing the effects of the Syrian Civil War. IS is a threat to the U.S. and global stability; however, weakening IS influence will not be effective without a strong government in place to fill the power vacuum. Twenty countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, accept the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representative of Syria. This coalition is moderate and peaceful and therefore should be more actively supported by the U.S. government.

The Syrian conflict is difficult to halt but easier to contain. U.S. military efforts are focused on controlling events within Syria, but the Civil War is a murky hodgepodge of terrorist groups, radical ideologies, and religious tensions. An equally important and more reasonably achievable task is preventing events in Syria from destabilizing other countries in the Middle East. This includes working with border countries on preventing the fighting from spilling across Syrian borders, helping border countries handle the influx of Syrian refugees, and providing humanitarian assistance for these refugees. To date more than 3 million refugees have sought asylum in Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt. Eighty-two per cent of the total refugee population in the region is living outside camps, in urban or rural areas, and half is not supported by the United Nations due to lack of funding. This magnitude of refugees can cause economic strain and crime, as Syrians desperately try to feed their families. Through helping these burdened countries, the U.S. will gain friends in a hostile region of the world, prevent the spread of instability, and save hundreds of thousands of lives.This policy prescription will benefit the U.S. more than pitting a few thousand fighters against Assad and IS, and arming rebels with dubious intents.

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