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In response to the declaration of a jihadist “caliphate” straddling Syria and Iraq, the Obama administration has announced that it will provide $500 million of assistance to train and equip the moderate Syrian opposition. Based in the heart of the Middle East, and recruiting significant numbers of European citizens and even Americans, ISIS poses a threat to the security of the US that may be greater even than the threat posed by Afghanistan-based Al Qaeda at the beginning of the last decade. So it makes sense that the US should be seeking out allies.
The moderate Syrians are fighting both the Assad regime and the jihadist opposition simultaneously. In fact, they are the principle target of the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They constitute the only Sunni group currently opposing ISIS, and perhaps the only group that is opposing it effectively at all, given the miserable performance of Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s security forces. In view of the threat ISIS poses to the security of the US, it makes sense to support the moderate Syrian opposition.
But what the administration is proposing is pathetic.
As briefed to Congress yesterday:
Military officials told congressional committees in closed-door briefings last week that the $500 million program could be used to train a 2,300-man force—less than the size of a single brigade—over an 18-month period that probably wouldn’t begin until next year, said meeting participants.
Thus, by the time even this minimal program is completed, some two years or more from now, there might be no moderate opposition left in Syria.
Three years ago, $500 million accompanied by a strong program of political support for the Syrian opposition might have made a significant difference. But now it is a laughable drop in the bucket, a further sign of American lack of seriousness.
Back in the 1980’s, the witty British comedy series, “Yes, Prime Minister,” had an episode in which the Prime Minister’s private secretary, Bernard Wooley, is educated by the wily and experienced Cabinet Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, and Sir Richard Wharton, the Permanent Secretary in the Foreign Office, about how to avoid doing anything in the face of an international crisis.
Sir Richard Wharton: We will give them every support short of help.
Bernard Woolley: What if the Prime Minister insists we help them?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Then we follow the four-stage strategy.
Bernard Woolley: What’s that?
Sir Richard Wharton: Standard Foreign Office response in a time of crisis.
Sir Richard Wharton: In stage one we say nothing is going to happen.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Stage two, we say something may be about to happen, but we should do nothing about it.
Sir Richard Wharton: In stage three, we say that maybe we should do something about it, but there’s nothing we can do.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Stage four, we say maybe there was something we could have done, but it’s too late now.
Sadly, life seems to be imitating comedy, except that US policy in Syria has now added a fifth stage:
Well, it’s too late to do anything meaningful, but we’ve decided to do something anyway.
Unfortunately, if we wait too long, the only way to accomplish anything meaningful may be with American “boots on the ground,” the option that everyone wants to avoid.
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