Arming the Syrian Rebels?

Learn from history, or you're destined to repeat it.  Last year the world watched as Libya birthed a new regime, but not after months of hard labor and thousands of deaths.  The U.S., leading NATO from behind, provided air support and enforced a no-fly zone, yet we didn't provide support in the form of weapons or advisers to the rebels.  But other groups did -- groups that now have influence over the direction of the nation, and that direction is leading right into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists and elements of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Indeed, after the early civilian demonstrations were met with extreme violence by Gaddafi, including via sending bombers to crush the peaceful marches, the international community authorized via U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 military action, "in defense of the civilian populations threatened by the regime."  But because of lack of initial engagement with the right partners, the rebellion was seized by the Islamists, and the country is now under the influence of armed factions, one of which is led by former al-Qaeda cadres.

Syria, while different from Libya in many ways, is similar in one: if the United States fails to provide support in the form of arming the rebels who are attempting to overthrow Assad, another group will.  Already, we see al-Qaeda elements from Iraq slipping across the border and Muslim Brotherhood support flowing in from Turkey.

I visited the area just last week and traveled to the border area of Syria and Iraq, where I met with leaders from the Arab and Kurdish Syrian opposition groups, which includes the FSA and SNC.  Unlike in Libya, the Syrians oppositionists are pleading for U.S. involvement.  They actually requested not only air support, but arms with which to fight and advisers to help with training and strategic guidance.

There are obstacles and questions surrounding the prospect of providing weapons and munitions to the rebels, such as how you ensure that they don't fall into the hands of known terrorist organizations such as AQ and the PKK.  However, larger questions loom, such as "what is the cost of inaction?"  Syria has dominated Lebanon and threatened Israel for decades.  There is no question that Syria is in league with Iran.  Syrian oppositionists repeatedly passed along information about armed Iranians in civilian clothing at military bases in the northern Syrian province of al-Hasaka.  Removing Assad's vicious regime effectively breaks the Iranian geographic connection to the Mediterranean Sea and significantly reduces its ability to threaten Israel.

In his prescient book which predicted the Arab Spring as of 2010, Walid Phares, author of The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East, and who advises members of the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament on the region, told me that "we're witnessing a race in the region with three main players in each country: the authoritarian regimes, the Islamists and the forces of civil society.  When the dictators goes down, the race will be down to two: jihadists and seculars.  We'd better chose our horse early on, before it will become too late."

Phares's predictions materialized not only in Libya, but also in Egypt and Tunisia.  Islamists are seizing these countries from dictators.  In Syria, there are several factions within the opposition.  The seculars are present across the uprising, and so are the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists.  If we want to ensure a post-Assad Syria which would be democratic and move toward peace and prosperity, we need to partner now with those segments of society which are favorable to pluralism.  Included in this category are secular and reformist Syrians among the Sunni majority and minorities including Kurds and Christians, but also Druse and even anti-Assad Alawites.  Phares has rarely been wrong on country assessments.  

The president has said he seeks a resolution without military intervention, and that is an achievable aim.  Providing the rebels with a way to defend themselves allows them to resolve the issue on their own.  Standing on the sidelines and hoping for a good outcome, however, is no way to run a foreign policy.  The United States is the leader of the free world, the standard-bearer for democracy and a champion of human rights. The shining city on a hill has an obligation to help those who are trying to shrug off the shackles of a dictator whose government, in league with the evil empire of Iran, has been a plague in the region for decades.

Jamie Smith is a decorated former CIA officer; founding director of Blackwater Security; and frequent commentator on intelligence, security, and terrorism matters for FOX News, CNN, and MSNBC.  Follow on Twitter @JamieSmith1776.

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