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War is Not an Entitlement: No to Aid for Syria's Rebels

John Kerry and Moaz Al-Khalib
Obama administration policy toward Syria is a slow train wreck.  Unremitting pressure from war-minded elites is pushing President Barack Obama closer to military intervention in the bloody civil war.  America’s putative allies appear to believe that they are entitled to U.S. support.  Yet getting involved would be a fool’s errand.

War should be a matter of necessity, not choice.  Syria is a distinctly unpromising case for nation-building:  a messy civil war with a weakened family dictatorship attempting to retain control of an artificial nation increasingly fractured along ethnic and sectarian lines.

Yet Syrian insurgents expect Western aid and are angry when Washington fails to act.  Last August, reported the Washington Post, America “increasingly is being viewed with suspicion and resentment for its failure to offer little more than verbal encouragement.”  One rebel spokesman said:  “America will pay a price for this.  America is going to lose the friendship of Syrians.”

Only limited humanitarian assistance followed, to the great frustration of the insurgents.  Earlier this year opposition leader Adib Shishakly complained to the Post that the rebels were “absolutely disappointed” at the lack of military assistance.

Washington recently promised to provide weapons to the rebels but has been slow.  When Secretary of State John Kerry visited Syrian refugees in mid-July, they berated him for the delay.

One insistent refugee was quoted by the Wall Street Journal:  “We are not satisfied with the Americans’ actions.  We are only hearing words.  We need active steps!”  The Journal cited another one asking “What are you waiting for?  At least impose a no-fly zone or an embargo.”   Another refugee said:  “The U.S., as a superpower, can change the equation in Syria in 30 minutes after you return to Washington.”

Rebels reacted similarly.  Complained Gen. Salim Idriss, commander of the Supreme Military Council:  “At the end of the day we are not getting any kind of military support.”  Mosab Abu Qutada, a rebel spokesman, said:  “We have honestly lost hope.  We were promised a lot before, and they never kept their promises.”

The insurgent want list is long.  Louay Meqdad, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, said:  “We need short-range ground-to-air missiles, [shoulder-fired] MANPADS, anti-tank missiles, mortars, and ammunition.  We also need communications equipment, bullet-proof vests and gas masks.”  Moreover, “It is necessary to establish secure areas and impose no-fly zones in the south or north.”  Finally, the rebels required “a safe haven” to stop the regime from using “Scud missiles with unconventional warheads to shell liberated areas.”

In February the Syrian National Congress announced that it would boycott U.S.-organized peace talks to protest inadequate assistance.  In June Gen. Idris proclaimed “If we don’t receive ammunition and weapons to change the position on the ground, to change the balance on the round, very frankly I can say we will not go to Geneva” for international meetings.  The insurgents changed their mind after a phone call from Secretary Kerry and, explained Mouaz al-Khatib, head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, promises of “qualitative aid” from America and Britain.

The strangest reaction is a threat to attack the U.S. if it does not give in to rebel demands.  Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) cited a teacher who allegedly said:  “This next generation of children will take revenge on those that did not help them.”

It’s a ludicrous claim coming from someone who has worked to raise insurgents’ unrealistic expectations of armed intervention and, more important, doesn’t recognize the significant and frequent blowback from intervention.  That is, when U.S. forces kill, bomb, invade, and occupy other nations, it creates enemies who want revenge.

When, however, have combatants lashed out violently against those who failed to help them?  The world is filled with conflicts in which Washington did not—thankfully!—intervene.  Moreover, presumed gratitude toward America for intervening has not protected Americans from attack in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere.

In any case, insurgents ultimately will have more on their minds than attacking the U.S.  If they win, they will have a country to rebuild and rule.  If they lose, they will have to evade and survive a vengeful Assad regime.  They would more likely look for ways to escape to America than to launch attacks on America.

The conflict in Syria is a human tragedy, but there is no security interest at stake for Americans who would do the paying and especially the dying from intervening.  Washington should stop making new enemies who then want to attack the U.S.  The Obama administration should not turn Syria’s tragedy into America’s tragedy.


Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.  A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including "Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire" (Xulon).

This piece first appeared August 5, 2013, on 

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