In tonight’s presidential debate, Mitt Romney is all but certain to hit Obama for standing on the sidelines in the Syrian conflict. But according to Middle East experts—including one former Middle East adviser to President Bush—Romney’s proposed alternative could lead to “direct involvement in a Syrian war.”
Romney laid out his attack in a recent speech at the Virginia Military Institute. He advocated identifying those members of the Syrian opposition fighting President Assad who share American values and “ensur[ing] they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets.”
But experts say it’s not nearly that easy. “There are over 100 opposition groups currently in Syria, and we know little about them,” said Vali Nasr, a Middle East expert who advised the Bush White House on the Iraq conflict, and serves as dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He said the United States has nowhere near the intelligence capabilities to sift through the rebels and discern the intentions, values, and capabilities of each of the many groups.
“Governor Romney’s critique is off the mark,” Nasr added, “ because his sort of ‘selective intervention’ sounds good, but it will lead to direct involvement in a Syrian war.”
Nasr went on to slam the notion of directing the Syrian opposition from Washington as intervention “by remote control.”
Add to that the fact that there’s no clear command structure for the Syrian insurgency, making it extremely difficult to control the direction of arms. “It doesn’t always matter the degree of support we provide, so much as the actors wielding them,” Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former Obama administration State Department official and now the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
“It is not even clear now that outside actors could shape what is happening inside Syria, which is essentially a civil war defined in sectarian terms,” Wittes added.
The immense practical difficulties of arming the Syrian rebels were highlighted by a New York Times story Monday that reported that most of the weapons supplied by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the Syrian insurgents are getting into the hands of jihadists.
There is the also the precedent of Afghanistan. From 1979 to 1989, America and its allies in the Gulf region supported Islamist rebels fighting against the Soviet Union, who invaded Afghanistan in ’79. “The result of that was 9/11,” said Nasr. America couldn’t control the flow of arms after the Soviets left in 1989, and the weapons ended up in the hands of the Taliban and other extremists.
Wittes agreed. “A lot of the actors we supported in Afghanistan didn’t remain friendly to us,” she said.
Nasr argued that the United States should be working to develop an international coalition that takes into account the needs of our allies such as Turkey. “We need to think through our end-game,” he said. “Saying Assad should go is not enough, because what comes after? That is just the beginning.”
But for Mitt Romney, that may be something to worry about after November.