CIA Arms Syrian Rebels, Forgets That Whole Diplomacy Thing


Debate over U.S. policy in Syria has centered on the looming threat of U.S. military action. National discourse seems bent on the idea that the country can choose to become involved in Syria's civil war or effectively step aside. But this discourse is misleading as the decision has already been made. America has been and is currently sending support and lethal arms to Syria's rebel fighters with Congress' approval. 

It is no secret that the U.S. has been supporting fighters under the command of General Salim Idriss in Syria by providing "nonlethal assistance" such as defense armor, vehicles and other gear, and medical supplies to support their fighting. Generally, these supplies have been provided through the U.S. Department of State. However, in the wake of a plan approved by Congress in July, the CIA has begun amping up these supplies to include lethal aid by providing materials like light weapons, anti-tank weapons, and other munitions. 

No matter how Congress frames the debate over the U.S.'s alleged ability to stand aside in the conflict, the U.S. is actively playing a role by choosing sides and arming fighters in Syria's civil war as the situation escalates.

The initiative is backed by $250 million in federal funding provided to support "moderate elements" within the Syrian opposition. The U.S. government has already earmarked $26.6 million in both lethal and non-lethal aid to the Supreme Military Council leadership of the Free Syrian Army. The bill authorizing weapons transfer to rebels was approved by a 15-3 Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote last July.

Many U.S. officials have actively urged the administration to support sending aid to rebels in order to secure U.S. interests as the situation unfolds. They argue that this tactic can increase cohesion and structure of rebel fighters.

"This doesn't only lead to a more effective force, but it increases its ability to hold coalition groups together," said Mark S. Ward, the State Department's senior adviser on assistance to Syria who is coordinating the dissemination of non-lethal aid to rebels from southern Turkey. He said U.S. support can empower emerging moderate leaders while dimming the appeal of extremists. Ward told the Washington Post he hopes the assistance efforts will enable the United States to build strong relationships in post-war Syria. "We vet individuals who are getting our assistance to make sure they are not affiliated with terror organizations," Ward said.

U.S. assistance teams have a delicate job when funneling supplies in the region, often working out of hotel lobbies. Assistance can include a wide range of support activities, including providing training for municipal services and supporting basic infrastructure like garbage trucks and ambulances. State Department officials involved in the missions warn that extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra are delivering services to communities newly under rebel control to help garner support. U.S. efforts, they claim, can help dampen the extremists' appeal.

The new channel of lethal aid seems to significantly embolden the approach and U.S. involvement. Supplies in nonlethal services, though clearly aimed at impacting outcomes in a foreign civil war, are often framed as peace building "diplomatic" tools. The new weapons flow attempts to edge out the influence from Iran and Russia, countries clearly arming Assad's forces.

Rising optimism and support for a U.S. "diplomatic solution" to Syria that does not involve the military is over-simplified and idealistic. Officials against authorizing the use of U.S. force such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have vehemently opposed military action because of the "evil on both sides" and concern for getting "involved in civil war."

A situation in which the U.S. does not send its own military or munitions into the crossfire and brings stakeholders to the bargaining table is a wholly "non-military" option. As the U.S. sends support and munitions as we speak, it is very much choosing sides. 

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