Arming Syrian Rebels—Afghanistan Deja Vu?

Concerns over the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, have continued to grow. Last night, President Obama addressed the nation on the “ISIS threat.” He announced his intentions to provide further assistance to opposition groups. More specifically, he is asking Congress for $500 million to arm and train “moderate Syrian rebels.”

The idea of sending weapons to fight a regime or group deemed “unfriendly” to U.S. interests is not a new phenomenon. In fact, between 1970 and 1979, the U.S. arranged for more than $74 billion in weapons to be sent abroad. This number has only continued to climb. The logic behind sending weapons is straight forward. By selectively equipping groups friendly to U.S. interests, the U.S. government is able to “tip the scales” in a particular conflict. The U.S. can effectively defeat the opposition with fewer or no American troops on the ground. Moreover, once the conflict has come to an end, those in power (i.e. those who received military assistance from the U.S.) will look to maintain relations with the U.S. so as to obtain more benefits. In essence, by providing arms, the U.S. is able to end a conflict, position a “friendly” regime to take power, and ultimately influence international policy.

As appealing as this narrative sounds, in reality it’s not that simple. The scenario suggested by the President and others falls prey to linear thinking. That is, such plans assume that the U.S. government can 1. identify a problem, 2. construct a solution, and 3. implement it. This type of thinking maintains that an intervention only impacts those areas which the U.S. government intends.

What this type of thinking ignores is that it is impossible for these kinds of interventions to do only one thing. When acting in a complex system like Syria, there are innumerable moving parts, literally millions of actors, each responding to their own unique incentives. It is impossible to know at the start how interfering in one part of the system will impact other parts, either immediately or in the future.

Take, for example, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979. In an effort to drive out the Soviet Union, the U.S. chose to arm a rebel group, the Mujahedeen. Reflecting upon the conflict in 1983, President Reagan stated that,

To watch the courageous Afghan freedom fighters [Mujahedeen]…is an inspiration to those who love freedom….The West has no designs upon Afghanistan….All we seek is the restoration of peace and freedom for a noble and brave people

Arming the group may have had the desired short-term effects. The Soviet Union ended its occupation in early 1980 and the U.S. military sent no troops to the region. But the consequences of the policy had long-reaching effects. The Mujahedeen were able to gain control of the country. But those “freedom fighters,” once lauded as heralds of liberty, formed the Taliban. Afghanistan became a safe haven for individuals like Osama bin Laden and others, who not only opposed the interests of the U.S. government, but directly impacted the freedom of Afghan citizens.

The situation in Syria is no different in principle. Syria’s regime is unfriendly to the U.S. The country is in the midst of an ongoing civil war with a death toll considered tragic on any margin. But the idea that the U.S. can arm rebels and keep weapons in “responsible and moderate” hands is unfounded in theory and practice. If the U.S. were to send weapons to Syria, there are no guarantees how such weapons would be used, who would ultimately possess them, or how such an arrangement would change conditions over time. If Afghanistan and other U.S. ventures into the Middle East are any indication, there is a very real possibility that weapons sent to protect U.S. interests today could be used to threaten them tomorrow.

The situation in Syria is undoubtedly a difficult one. Mounting international concerns have placed new pressures on the U.S. government to “do something.” But before advocating or undertaking any action in Syria, it is imperative to understand that such interventions have costs. Many of these costs are not visible and won’t materialize immediately. Pretending otherwise will yield disastrous results.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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