“They just can't fight tanks with AK-47s," Senator McCain said. As to the prospect of arming terrorists with weapons that can easily be turned against the United States, he added, “I'm confident that they could get the weapons into the right hands.”
What the right hands are is a matter of debate. In Syria, McCain met with General Salim Idris. The weapons would be headed into Idris’s hands. But what makes Idris’s hands the right ones?
"They are not al Qaida. They are not extremists," McCain said of the rebels, while insisting that Al Qaeda makes up only a small percentage of the total rebel forces.
But General Idris might disagree with that assessment. The Free Syrian Army, which Idris commands, at least on paper, has a long history of engaging in joint operations with the Al-Nusra Front. The Al-Nusra Front is better known as the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
In hopes of obtaining American military assistance, General Idris disavowed the Al-Nusra Front, but earlier he had denied that Al-Nusra was a terrorist group and rejected American efforts to blacklist it. For the moment, General Idris may be willing to put on a moderate song and dance for McCain’s visit, but it’s quite clear from his previous statements that he does not consider Al-Nusra a terrorist group. It should be assumed that he will go on collaborating with them.
Last October, the Free Syrian Army and Al-Nusra jointly seized a Scud missile base. What happens when they seize a WMD depot?
But even if the Al-Nusra Front didn’t exist, arming the Free Syrian Army would still be madness.
The Syrian National Council is already dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Free Syrian Army isn’t much better. Even the New York Times admitted last month that “[n]owhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.”
The Free Syrian Army is now dominated by Islamist brigades like the Muslim Brotherhood’s Tawheed Brigade and the “moderately” Islamist Farouk Brigades; one of whose commanders was recorded on video eating a Syrian soldier’s lungs.
General Idris serves as the Chief of Staff of the FSA’s Supreme Military Command. The SMC allegedly has very little control over the Islamist militias in and out of the FSA. And two-thirds of its thirty commanders are members of the Muslim Brotherhood or allied to the Brotherhood.
Idris’s two deputies, Abdelbasset Tawil of Idleb and Abdel-Qadersaleh, are about as wrong as you can imagine. Tawil has reported ties to Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist Jihadist group whose goal is to create an Islamic state in Syria. Ahrar al-Sham’s members occasionally overlap with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Al-Nusra Front. Saleh heads the Tawheed Brigade, which is a member of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front. The SILF is a blatantly Islamist organization and together with Ahrar al-Sham issued a joint statement last year establishing an Islamic state in Syria.
If General Idris’s position on Al-Nusra seems slippery, his deputies, who also have far more control over the actual forces on the ground, are even more closely tied to an Islamist vision for Syria. Arming the Free Syrian Army would not mean equipping some imaginary coalition of secular officers that no longer exists, if it ever did, but providing heavy weaponry to Islamist militias fighting for an Islamic state.
Considering that fighters and commanders routinely switch from one brigade to another depending on opportunities and tendencies, McCain’s idea that the “right people” can be found and armed without the weapons traveling around is illusionary.
The Free Syrian Army is a useful myth because it implies an organized system and a formal chain of command. While the titles are out there, the reality on the ground consists of loose affiliations of militias held together by fundraising and ideology. The stream of YouTube videos celebrating their kills is a major fundraising tool. The militias fight among themselves over control of vital assets such as bakeries and oil wells.
If the situation sounds familiar, it should. That was the way it was in Libya, and intervening there left Benghazi under the control of the same amorphous clusters of Islamist militias, some of whom pretended to be friendly, but none of whom could be trusted. What was Benghazi then is now Aleppo. And just as in Libya, weapons from the conflict will float across borders to other terrorist groups.
McCain is warning of a regional conflict, but it’s already a regional conflict. Helping the Sunni militias beat the Shiites won’t change that. It will just advance the conflict to the next stage in Iraq and Lebanon. Overthrowing Gaddafi did not stabilize Libya, it destabilized Mali and Algeria, and overthrowing Assad will not stabilize Syria. There are no “right people” to arm because there are no good guys in an inter-religious holy war. And there is certainly no one we can trust.
There is as little sense in choosing Sunni Islamists over Shiite Islamists as the other way around. The only reason we have taken the Sunni side is because so many of our allies are Sunni. And yet the term “ally” is a misnomer.
Are the Saudis really our allies? Can the Islamist governments in Turkey or Egypt be trusted despite their ideological hostility to the United States?
The problem with arming the Sunni militias goes beyond putting weapons into the hands of Jihadists; who are already heavily armed. American weapons would largely be symbolic. They would indicate the final endorsement of a Syrian Islamic state. Supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt made the political takeover of countries by Islamists into American policy. Supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria would make the violent Islamist overthrow of countries into American policy.
And that would mean that in a decade, we have gone from declaring war on Islamic terrorism to arming Islamic terrorists.
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