Editorial: Funding rebels and repeating history


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As Iraq continues to struggle in civil war between the hard-line terrorist group of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, with opther Sunni allies, and the Nuri al-Maliki government based in Baghdad, the U.S. government is taking steps to try to force ISIS out of its home base in northern Syria. President Obama announced June 26 that he was requesting $500 million from Congress to train “appropriately vetted” moderate Syrian rebel groups in order to arm them to combat ISIS for control of the rebel-held areas that have acted as ISIS’ launching points to create, in its words, “an Islamic caliphate.” The money will also, presumably, be used to help turn the tide of the war against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in the opposition’s favor.

While we certainly appreciate the president’s attempts to minimize the damage from what is quickly becoming a foreign-policy disaster in the area, we believe that placing this money into the hands of rival Syrian rebel group will do nothing than further the death and misery that has defined the whole region in recent years without any sort of desirable political settlement to show for it.

To begin with, it seems that the aid is coming a little too late for the Syrian opposition — aid that would have been much more useful at the beginning of the civil war, when infighting with ISIS had not damaged the ability of the opposition to take control of the country. While there were never any good options for dealing with the Syrian crisis (with the “least bad” option, asylum for refugees and an isolationist approach to the political situation, still resulting in the destruction of a modern nation), funding the opposition later is worse than funding it sooner.

As at this point, supporting either side without an outright military invasion by the United States would only result in a slow-burn stalemate of a war that would cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of more Syrians. Such an outcome, frankly, is both ill-advised and immoral.

While supporting the moderate Syrian factions with more money won’t make any significant difference in resolving the Assad-oppposition conflict, supporters of funding, such as the president, contend that it will allow the moderate opposition to cleanse itself of radical, far-right elements such as ISIS. That contention, however, is also somewhat dubious.

As Joshua Keating at Slate has pointed out, the billions of dollars the Bush administration spent training and arming the Iraqi army has not stopped ISIS from taking large sections of northern and central Iraq. Even worse, those Iraqi troops have shown themselves to be utterly incompetent, dropping their weapons and fleeing against smaller, less formally trained ISIS forces in such cities as Mosul, Tikrit, and Fallujah. It seems that history is stuck on repeat with the United States and its role in Middle Eastern conflict. 

There is no doubt whether the civil wars in Iraq and Syria are among the worst travesties of the 21st century thus far. With hundreds of thousands butchered and more displaced from their homes and communities, the question the United States must ask itself is how it can use its resources to stop bloodshed without promoting violent measures. The historical evidence suggests that arming the moderate factions of the Syrian rebellion is not the best way to handle the crisis, but it could in fact further deteriorate and destabilize wars that have perpetuated through the last few decades.

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