Many people are calling for the U.S. to help the rebels fight back against the regime in Syria, which is engaged in daily massacres of civilians. For example, Senator John McCain (R–AZ) urged this course on a recent trip to the Middle East. He describes the problem as “asymmetric…with Bashar al-Assad receiving equipment and actual physical help from Iran, Russia, and the Syrian rebels not receiving equal assistance, or certainly not very much.”
However, the U.S. should exercise extreme caution before jumping on board with the Syrian rebels. The opposition in Syria is deeply fragmented; the rebels agree on little other than the need to bring down President Assad. It is unclear exactly who they are, but it appears al-Qaeda is already infiltrating them. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress last week that two recent car bombings in Syria had “all the earmarks of an Al Qaeda-like attack….We believe that Al Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria.”
Heritage’s Kim Holmes believes the Obama Administration’s souring relations with Iraq and its decision to rush U.S. troops out of that country have limited U.S. influence and made it easier for al-Qaeda to meddle in Syria.
If the U.S. were to arm rebel groups in Syria before it knows who they are, U.S. arms and equipment could end up in al-Qaeda’s hands. Although a recent U.N. General Assembly resolution highlights growing international opposition to Assad, the Administration’s failure to prevent Russia (Syria’s patron) and China from vetoing a binding U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution shows there is little appetite for hard interventions.
Heritage expert Jim Phillips explains that though options are limited, the U.S. can take steps to help the people of Syria while continuing to pressure Assad to step down. For now, he says, Washington should work with Turkey to provide humanitarian aid to the Syrians and diplomatic and economic support to opposition groups that are working to secure real freedoms, religious tolerance, and a pluralist democracy in post-Assad Syria.
Corey Gustafson is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm