Arming the Syrian Opposition: The Perils of Choosing Sides

by / 1 Comment / 236 View / July 6, 2014

With the Syrian conflict seeping into the heart of Iraq as the Sunni extremist group ISIS continues to gain territory, President Obama has made an appeal to Congress for a $500 million fund to arm and train the “appropriately vetted elements of the moderate Syrian armed opposition.” This moderate rebel group is currently waging war against the tyrannical government of Bashar Al-Assad, all while fending off the Islamic extremists striving to set up an Islamic state in the Syrian region. National Security Council Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said that the proposed funds “would help defend the Syrian people, stabilize areas under opposition control, facilitate the provision of essential services, counter terrorist threats, and promote conditions for a negotiated settlement”—a seemingly ideal proposition for a tumultuous area riddled with turmoil and violence.

The multifaceted situation has in the past given President Obama hesitation to intervene in the conflict, but with the recent outbreaks of violence and drastic territorial gains by ISIS, it has become evident that now—more than ever—is the time to intervene.However, the fact that there is little to no way to discretely identify the extremists, the moderates, and those who may use the US aid for malicious means is a deterrent causing reluctance in many Congressmen and women considering the proposal. This is not a new predicament, as the U.S. government faced a strikingly similar problem in the 1980’s with increasingly evident parallels.

In 1979, under the Reagan-Bush Administration, the U.S. chose to arm the Mujahedeen “freedom fighters” with heavy artillery and weaponry as part of the Reagan Doctrine to end Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan. While “Operation Cyclone” succeeded in influencing Moscow’s decision to withdraw from the area in February of 1989, the long-term effects were = detrimental to the security of peaceful nations across the world. The weapons allocated to the Mujahedeen ended up in the hands of radical Muslims, many of whom used them in acts of terrorism in following years. Mujahedeen insurgents have appeared in or have been tied to incidents of terrorism in the West Bank, Algeria, and Egypt, as well as the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. On top of that, the Stinger antiaircraft missiles given to the Mujahedeen ended up in the hands of Libya and Iran. While confounding to identify where all the funds and weaponry ended up, it is certain that much of the U.S. aid to the Mujahedeen helped to create the now thriving anti-western movements in the Middle East.

The perils of arming the opposition do not stop there. During the Iran-Contra Scandal of the Reagan Administration, the U.S. funded the anti-communist guerilla fighters in Nicaragua—which later became infamous for their vast human rights violations. Another mistake of arming the opposition only to feel the side effects later down the road, discovering that a seemingly benevolent government assisted in the torture and killing of innocent civilians.

While weary of the inherent uncertainty in the project, President Obama will now send the proposal to seek Congressional approval, which many predict will find bipartisan support. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who has staunchly opposed many of President Obama’s past proposals, has been calling for a plan to arm the Syrian rebels since the conflict’s origins. In a Fox News interview, Graham voiced his opinion on support for the moderate rebels: “The stronger [ISIS] gets in Iraq the more likely we are to get hit. There is a chance to turn it around. We better act quickly.”

After facing years of ridicule for the long-term effects of the mistakes made by the Reagan Administration, the U.S. government will surely use the utmost precaution when implementing this policy. One can only hope that President Obama has read up on the mistakes of his predecessors, as ‘those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’


Barnes, Julian E., Adam Entous, and Carol E. Lee. “Obama Proposes $500 Million to Aid Syrian Rebels.” Online WSJ. Wall Street Journal, 26 June 2014. Web. 1 July 2014. <>.

Carpenter, Ted Galen. “The Unintended Consequences of Afghanistan.” World Policy Journal 11.1 (1994): 76-87. Print.

“Statement by NSC Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden.” The White House. United States Government, 26 June 2014. Web. 1 July 2014. <>.
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  • ZPT205

    The parallels to Afghanistan are interesting to note, but I don’t think we should overstate them. When the Syrian revolution started, secular and moderate groups in the Free Syrian Army dominated the opposition. They’ve since been eclipsed by ISIS and other radicals, in part because the US didn’t offer the FSA any “lethal” support (while ISIS’ financial backers had no such qualms), and in part because the Assad regime consciously chose to focus on attacking ISIS more than the FSA. Members of the FSA have argued that the US’s refusal to offer substantial enough support sent a signal to anti-Assad elements that the FSA wasn’t credible enough, leading to ISIS’ rise in the first place. You mention ISIS in the article, of course– my point is that had the US been more aggressive from the beginning, ISIS may have never have gained a serious foothold to begin with.

    The result– ISIS taking control of large parts of Syria and spilling into Iraq– is at least as bad as any America’s-weapons-fall-into-the-wrong-hands doomsday scenario. Adding insult to injury, ISIS managed to capture large stores of US-provided armaments when it routed the Iraqi army in Mosul and elsewhere. Ironically, failing to provide weapons to the Syrian opposition actually seems to have increased the number of American weapons in the hands of extremist groups. I hope policymakers can strike a better balance between Syria and Afghanistan, if/when another situation like this arises in the future.