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The Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday approved legislation to have the United States provide small arms and ammunition to the Syrian opposition. While it’s good news that a bipartisan array of senators recognizes the high costs of American passivity, I’m less sanguine than some of my colleagues about the wisdom of arming the Syrian opposition. Alas, there’s a conceit in Washington that we can have open-ended policy debates and pretend that the ground truth hasn’t shifted in the meantime. Just because something was wise two years ago, 18 months ago, or one year ago doesn’t make it wise now. Timing matters.
During the years the Obama administration spent dawdling its thumbs, the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime radicalized. It’s one thing to hold meetings with moderates in Istanbul or Doha, but it’s quite another to pretend they hold influence on the ground. True, the Nusra Front — now openly sympathetic to Al Qaeda — is not as large as the Free Syrian Army, but quantity doesn’t always presage victory: Winning on a battlefield is not the same as competing at the ballot box. It’s the most militant, radical factions which fight the hardest. Add to that the likelihood that Turkey is supporting Nusra (and casting aspersions on those who challenge its support for Jihadists) and it appears the powers that be in Ankara don’t actually want the moderates to win.
Nor should the Senate be sanguine that we can differentiate between the radicals and the moderates (whatever that means in the Syrian context). If the US government was unable to vet two Chechen brothers living in suburban Boston, it’s silly to have confidence that they can separate ‘good Syrians’ from ‘bad Syrians.’ It is also naïve to believe that those who are moderate today will not pivot and accommodate those who are less moderate tomorrow. What Afghanistan was in the 1980s, Chechnya was in the 1990s, and Iraq was in the 2000s, Syria has become today for radical Jihadists.
That’s not to say we should cast our lot with Assad’s brutal dictatorship. Assad winning is like dying of cancer; the radicals winning is like dying of a heart attack. It’s long past time the United States focused on preventative medicine. So what should Washington do?
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