Consequences might arise from involvement in Syria
In a statement following the release of the video showing American journalist James Foley’s execution at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), President Obama said the administration’s lack of an articulated plan for dealing with the organization came from a hope to exercise caution and not “put the cart before the horse.” This was decried across the spectrum as an excuse for indecision and unpreparedness. While I have been a regular opponent of the president’s policies and direction, I did see some wisdom in this explanation. The situation in the Middle East and the question of foreign intervention are complex, and solutions need to be crafted with informed tact and hesitant caution. Congress’ recent decision to arm, fund and train elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) lacks both.
The plan will be directed toward 5,000 members of the FSA. In theory, it will only aid elements which have been vetted to ensure moderate ideology and detachment from militant Islam. It isn’t the first military action the US and a wide array of allies have taken against ISIS. American planes have been conducting airstrikes against strategic targets in Iraq since July, and were recently joined by the French. Compared to arming troops caught in the middle of a multi-dimensional civil war, utilizing air power to choke ISIS is surgical and contained. Injecting guns, money, and strategic intelligence into the FSA is a dangerous gamble. The Syrian conflict is composed of numerous groups and coalitions, each differing in ideology and/or objectives, but with plenty of overlap. Many of these groups, including ISIS, are militarized Islamists which the US should hope to disable. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” does not apply. Giving external support to the FSA opens a door for unpredictable outcomes with the potential for destructive blowback.
The FSA finds themselves in between ISIS and the Syrian government, who are fighting each other, while opposing both itself. They are informally aligned with the Islamic Front, a coalition of radicalized groups who, while opposed to ISIS, hope to unseat Assad and instate a religious state based in Sharia (Islamic religious law). If the FSA is successful, then what? In 1978, the CIA began Operation Cyclone, which armed and trained radical Islamic groups in Afghanistan in a fight against the Soviet-backed communist government. That same support has been linked to the evolution of al-Qaida, the Taliban, and their affiliates — then-prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, said it had created a “Frankenstein.” This should serve as a lesson of the unintended consequences of intervention.
Will the FSA evolve, and what path will that take? Will it bolster the creation of larger, more formidable enemies to be confronted in the future, as was the case in Afghanistan? The answers will be apparent only in time, and Congress’ frenzied rush to support one organization, diverse in itself, in the midst of a complex web of dangerous ideologies certainly puts the proverbial cart before the horse. In recent congressional hearings, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), said, “If we’ve learned anything of the last twelve years of war, it’s that the Middle East seems largely immune from US efforts to bend it to our will … we have to be very careful about crafting a strategy that’s not just well intentioned but realistic.” Unfortunately, Congress has ignored his warning.