There didn’t appear to be much difference between the two candidates at the recent presidential debate on the issue of Syria conflict. Both President Obama and Governor Romney were like-minded (Romney’s bizarre geographical gaffe aside) in expressing support for arming, in the President’s words, the “forces of moderation” opposing the Syrian government.
Each candidate also advocated working closely with our allies in the region. Alongside Turkey and Israel, Governor Romney cited Qatar and Saudi Arabia as useful partners. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been at the forefront of efforts to aid Syria’s rebels thus far, aided by limited logistical and intelligence support offered by the Obama administration.
The problem, however, is that neither the Qataris or Saudis are primarily interested in supporting “moderate” Syrian rebels and widespread media reports indicate that they channel aid primarily to “black flag” Islamic radicals, who are increasingly flocking to the region.
The Obama administration and its successor need to stop offering blind support to Qatari and Saudi efforts in the region and take matters more into American hands. What we are witnessing in Syria is not simply a two sided conflict between an oppressive dictator and the forces of Jeffersonian democracy, but rather a multilayered conflict with many factions. In broad strokes, however, we should think of there being three, rather than two, sides: the government and its supporters, radical Islamists, and the more-reasonable “rest.”
As abhorrent as the Syrian government is to our interests and our conscience, the alternative of radical Islam is worse. Yet, rather than throwing extensive material support behind those opposed to both secular and religious dictatorship, US leaders dither at best and empower our enemies at worst.
It is hard not to feel like we are making the same mistakes that we made in Afghanistan during the 1980s. In that case, the US provide large amounts of aid to Afghani “freedom fighters” — aid which was channeled almost exclusively through Pakistan, a country with interests as dissimilar from ours at the time as those of Saudia Arabia and Qatar are now. After the Soviets left and the government of Afghanistan fell, the legacy of American-backed Pakistani military support for extremists eventually led to rise of the Taliban and its allies at the expense of moderate Afghani factions.
There remain justifiable fears that US military aid to any Syrian rebels could find its way into the hands of jihadists. Introducing new types of weaponry that aren’t currently found in the area would, indeed, be a bad idea. Would-be terrorists, however, such as those recently captured smuggling weapons out of Syria in order to conduct terrorist acts in Jordan, already have access to a variety of light weapons and will continue to in the future.
We need to think about the shape of a post-Assad Syria and ask ourselves who will stand up to the forces of Islamic extremism. If we do not choose to step up our efforts to help the “forces of moderation” in Syria and end our misplaced faith in our Saudi and Qatari “partners,” the answer might be no one.