Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford is becoming an increasingly outspoken critic of the Obama administration's handling of the civil war there. Appearing on the News Hour, Ford made the by-now familiar accusation that the administration needlessly delayed military aid to the rebels:
We need -- and we have long needed -- to help moderates in the Syrian opposition with both weapons and other nonlethal assistance. Had we done that, a couple of years ago, had we ramped it up, frankly the al-Qaeda groups that have been winning adherents would have been unable to compete with the moderates who, frankly, we have much in common with. But the moderates have been fighting constantly with arms tied behind their backs because they don't have the same resources that either Assad does or the al-Qaeda groups in Syria do.
Ford blithely brushed off the question of how the U.S. would ensure custody of those weapons by assuring us that the U.S. government had "information on reliable groups" whose "agenda was compatible with our national security interests."
Of course, even if the U.S. did have a finely tuned understanding of various rebel groups and how they would act if they were to receive large shipments of U.S. weapons (a skill that Washington has curiously failed to manifest elsewhere) this is hardly the only argument against arming factions in Syria's civil war.
A more serious objection is that backing one side to "victory" does nothing more than implicate the U.S. in the creation of yet-another failed state. Ford and his supporters have a surpisingly naive faith in the power of Syria's rebel groups to not only depose Assad but to stand up a relatively cohesive and secure state in his wake. Where is this faith coming from? It couldn't be from Iraq or Libya, where the U.S. directly and indirectly toppled regimes only to see chaos flower in the aftermath. The U.S. directly implanted a government in Afghanistan at the cost of billions of dollars and is now leaving the country at the mercy of a still-potent insurgency.
And yet, we're supposed to believe that U.S. arms to Syrian rebel groups would buck this trend. On what grounds?
Some might argue that early U.S. intervention would have at least empowered "our guys" at the expense of Assad and may have headed off al-Qaeda. The second claim seems completely false -- if rebel groups were able to depose Assad, al-Qaeda would almost certainly have slipped into the country in the resultant chaos (unless you make the over-confident assumption that U.S.-backed rebels would have quickly locked down the entire country). As for deposing Assad, it's probably true that U.S. support early on could have tipped the balance -- but again, it would have tipped the balance toward just as much chaos. Only in that instance, the U.S. would bear a much greater responsibility for the destruction and would be under even more pressure to step up its involvement to clean up the resulting mess.
The Obama administration's current policy is certainly not defensible, either -- making bold statements while dribbling in ineffective aid, all while promising to do more, is not achieving anything. But the critics arguing that the administration should have done more, earlier, seem to assume a series of fortunate outcomes that have been belied by recent U.S. experience in the region.