I wrote this eighteen months ago as an op-ed piece, but the international situation had cooled off a bit by then and it wasn’t published. With the situation in Ukraine and Syria and the ISIL invasion of Iraq, it seems more timely now than ever.
Lethal Aid: the Case for a Kill Switch
According to their Congressional testimony, multiple members of President Obama’s cabinet recommended that the US give arms to the Syrian rebels. These recommendations were made with clear reservations about the risks involved, but top officials including the Secretaries of State and Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs still favored arming the rebels.
They recommended aid because the worst and bloodiest wars are inconclusive wars between determined foes, particularly long, drawn-out civil wars. In such cases, giving one side a substantial advantage in firepower can, paradoxically, often result in a much quicker resolution to the conflict, saving hundreds of thousands of lives.
But Obama rejected the recommendation for the same reason that his advisors had reservations about it: sending arms and munitions into a civil war in the Middle East involves a significant risk that those same weapons will end up in the hands of terrorists.
We’ve seen this in Libya, where many weapons (mostly stolen from Gaddafi’s warehouses, but also including those given to the rebels by outside sources), ended up in the possession of terrorists.
In Syria, we’re already seeing small-arms shipments from the Saudis and Qataris going to men who, while they are fighting Assad currently, are very likely to take their new guns and point them at other targets in the region. Given recent history and the instability of the region, President Obama’s concerns that any heavier weapons we give to Syrian rebels will end up in the hands of terrorists are well founded.
It is these heavier weapons that would have made the biggest real difference in the Syrian conflict, the ones that would have increased the rebels’ lethality and combat effectiveness the most: anti-air missiles, RPGs, and other similar systems.
These are, of course, precisely the kind of weapons that President Obama was most worried about. No US president wants to contemplate the idea of al-Qaeda or other extremist groups using American missiles to shoot down airliners, or using American RPGs to blow up buses full of tourists or limos carrying important leaders.
That’s the basic dilemma in providing “lethal aid”: the more powerful the weapons, the greater the danger of misuse in the wrong hands. This is unlikely to be the last time we would like to support the overthrow of a murderous and illegitimate regime, but are inhibited by the real dangers of introducing sophisticated weapons into a fundamentally chaotic situation.
Is there anything that can be done to resolve this dilemma?