It’s an old story; well-meaning Syrian ex-pat sends food and other aid back home in support of protests against Assad, approaches rich Kuwaitis about increasing the amount of assistance, suddenly finds himself running weapons to armed extremist groups. It’s also the reason why the United States never went all-in on the Syrian rebellion despite all the opprobrium that decision earned from our erstwhile Saudi pals.
In the months after protests first erupted in Syria in 2011, a soft-eyed native of Deir al-Zour province did two things — one he is proud of and another he deeply regrets. As an expatriate living in Kuwait, he was energized by the thought of change back home; he spent his money, devoted his time, and rearranged his life around sending food, medicine, and supplies into suffering Syrian communities.
“We were not heroes [before], but placed in such unusual circumstances, we are somehow heroes,” he said, recalling how he gathered bags of rice, pleaded with his friends for help, and negotiated with stingy drivers to lower the cost of driving the goods from Kuwait through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and into Syria.
But not long after the charity work began, he and fellow expats joined up with Kuwaiti donors, and a decision was made to help mold military brigades from the opposition. He shook his head and lowered his voice remembering.
“The mistake was to create the armed groups,” he said, almost in a whisper. “We cannot fight a professional army.”
More than two years later, what was once a peaceful uprising in Syria is today a complicated civil war with not just two players but hundreds of armed groups and militias.
Here’s the thing: for rich Gulf Arabs there’s no downside to funding and supplying extremist fighters in Syria. The best case scenario is that their pet fundamentalists take over the country and suddenly they’ve got some major pull with the Syrian government. The worst case scenario is that they throw some cash at some jihadi groups, burnish their credentials with hard-liners at home who might otherwise not like them so much, and keep the international jihad movement, to say nothing of the jihadis themselves, focused on what’s happening in Syria so its/their attention doesn’t focus somewhere else, say on Kuwait, hypothetically. But for the United States, as much as we don’t like Assad and as much as he threatens our interests and those of Israel, it would be manifestly worse if Assad were removed and replaced with one of these extremist militias, or if several of them were left vying to fill a giant power vacuum, not to single out any particular recent example of such a thing. Imagine a Balkanized Syria looking the way Libya does right now, except in Syria’s case it sits right in the heart of the Middle East, shares a border with Israel, and, oh yeah, each of its contenders to power has some wealthy regional heavy backing it up. It’s hard to imagine how things could get any worse in Syria, but that would probably do it.
In a situation where humanitarian aid to protesters gets perverted by Gulf oil barons into the organization and arming of extremist rebels, it’s best the United States not pick a side. There’s no direct military action we can take that won’t benefit the extremist militias as much as or more than whatever moderates are still fighting, and there’s no military aid we can send that can be kept out of the hands of those extremists (although with as much aid as they’re getting from the Gulf they may not need it). As slim a chance as there is of seeing a secular moderate government replace Assad, the only way that’s possible is through the kind of negotiated settlement that all these Gulf and Al-Qaeda client militias continue to reject. Maybe our continued talks with Iran will produce a way forward that gets rid of Assad but somehow prevents Jaysh al-Islam, Jabhat al-Nusrah, or something similar from replacing him. Airstrikes and large-scale military aid will not.