Syria Civil War: Arming Syrian Rebels Is Machiavellian Genius

As was seemingly inevitable, the Obama administration recently decided to provide military support to Syrian rebels to level the playing field.

While “leveling” may sound like a vague descriptor for protracted conflict, this may be the point, even in the face of over 93,000 civilian deaths.

Marc Lynch, one of the most respected Middle East thinkers, stated in his blog at Foreign Policy that administration officials don’t believe supplying rebels is "likely to work;" it’s time to redefine “work.” 

The criticism of President Obama’s decision has been all too predictable, and all of the pundits, bloggers, professionals, analysts, think thank fellows, and ornery Congressmen have thrown around phrases like “slippery slope,” “too little too late,” and a host of other catchy little tag lines meant to induce emotional reaction in lieu of critical thought.

Regardless, in the face of 70% opposition from the American public, U.S. tax dollars will begin to arm and train Syria’s rebels. But what is interesting, and largely absent from the debate, is that arming Syria’s rebels is not the kind of single-barreled, half-cocked strategy that would have been commonplace in 2003, but rather a well planned foreign policy tactic that will help solve other related quagmires in the region.

For one, Iran is making critical mistakes in Syria. Thus far, they have spent over $10 billion to aid the Assad regime, while promising another $7 billion in the near future. Given that Iran’s revenues, the majority of which come from struggling oil sales, are down to only $40 billion, such spending is deeply destructive to the country. Further, Iran’s newly elected President Rowhani, a seeming reformist in a largely traditionalist Iranian bureaucracy, seems pliable to resetting the relationship between his country and the West.

The U.S. decision to arm Syria’s rebels keeps Iran mired in the conflict and bleeds it of crucial assets whilst weakening the regime in the face of its citizenry. This bloodletting along with the election of a more moderate Iranian president could very well force the regime to concede crucial points in nuclear negotiations, shut off a large portion of funding to its proxy fighting in Syria from the West, and be altogether more cooperative if the regime calculates that its citizens will not stand for such mismanagement in the face of a dying petroleum sector, rampant inflation, and a large youth population with little hope for a bright future. While critics will argue that Rowhani has no policy making power in face of the Ayatollah, his ability to foment hunger for reform cannot be understated, give the large margin with which he won election.

This has ramifications for other nefarious Syrian allies as well since the CIA – responsible for the clandestine dissemination of aid – will more than likely train and provide intelligence support to rebel fighters on not only how to fight against the Assad regime, but also Hezbollah, the Al-Qaeda aligned Al-Nusra Front, and whomever else has no place in the country, thus weakening other groups while propping up purist Syrian fighters in the face of Assad’s war machine.

Military aid to rebels has other benefits as well. Of the most obvious, it greatly pleases U.S. allies in the Middle East who wish to see Iran and the Assad regime suffer. It also clearly pleases Syrian rebels, thus potentially stripping some allegiance from dangerous groups within Syria who were providing support to rebels before, and may bring many fighters closer to center from more right wing leanings.

Some highly respectable voices, such as Paul Pillar and Michael Hanlon, have been commenting on this issue and acknowledging the idea of intentional Iranian bloodletting, but they don’t seem to take into account the grittier details of the strategy; instead summing it up to little more than President Obama breaking under international pressure to do more in Syria. While this is likely a motivator, it seems at odds with the Administration’s track record of Realist foreign policy leanings in Afghanistan (more or less), Iraq, Pakistan, the drone program, usage of JSOC, and a rigid commitment to keep U.S. forces out of conflicts that are of little national security or obvious foreign policy interest.

Detractors like Senator John McCain, who has been of the most vocal and bombastic critics of Obama’s Syria policy, maintain that a no-fly zone should be implemented over Syria’s skies. But this strategy, as Retired Army Lieutenant General David Barno points out beautifully in his latest piece on Foreign Policy, can easily lead to mission creep that involves U.S. forces being shot down over Syrian airspace, thus necessitating rescues and other more complicated methods of involvement in country. Further, providing air support decidedly enters the U.S. into war with Syria, since Syrian troops will inevitably die while being caught up in mid-air firefights and from bombing runs against Syrian air force installations and anti-aircraft batteries.

Any further involvement besides small arms and military training risks a serious momentum change, precipitating dangerous levels of U.S. involvement in a civil war that it can use to its regional advantage if the Obama administration maintains discipline. What is clear in this debate, and what most experts will agree on across the board is that an end game in Syria has not been discussed; something that is deeply troubling and must be brought up sooner than later.

But more important to address than any other issue is that Syrians are dying at terrifying rates. While providing basic military support to rebels will unequivocally prolong such bloodshed, it must be realized that the Middle East, the U.S., Iran, and others are involved in a world-class game of chess in the region. Allowing Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah to win in Syria is a diplomatic blow the U.S. cannot afford to take given the issue of Iran’s nuclear program and regional allies who may lose faith in the American ability to provide them security. 

By providing calculated military support to Syrian rebels, the U.S. may be able to gain traction in its conflict with Iran, thus cutting Iranian support for Assad and possibly leading to his fall without the need for U.S. escalation beyond current involvement.

This strategy is not pretty and will cause further bloodshed while leaving many scratching their heads in disbelief. But it may also prove brilliant in solving a seemingly intractable conflict. The Obama administration is exercising Realist foreign policy at its best, and whether this policy stands up to the rigors of moral review, remember that Machiavelli was no prince…