Which Syrian Rebels, Exactly, Should We Arm?

Andrew Sullivan —  May 20 2013 @ 12:47pm

The Economist has a helpful graphic on key rebel groups in Syria:


Note how may of these groups are described as “Islamists” or “Jihadists.” Matt Steinglass doubts there is much we can do:

[W]hat about trying to just end the bloodshed and freeze the current situation? Given that the country’s population has effectively split into irreconcilable warring camps, wouldn’t it be best for all concerned if those camps were each acknowledged as legitimate in their areas of control? If those areas of control are more homogenous than the overall Syrian state, couldn’t that form a more stable basis for governance? Should America aim for a resolution along those lines in the talks it’s convening with Russia?

Maybe. Then again, maybe not. The problem with formally acknowledging armed secessionist groups as soon as they gain control over a patch of territory is that it encourages new armed groups to secede, provoking yet more civil wars. (See under: Yugoslavia.) And in the middle east, hopes that such splinter groups will grow into non-belligerent stakeholders once they’ve become responsible for controlling populations and territory are often disappointed. (See under: Hamas; Gaza.)

Even Jeffrey Goldberg, who has been itching for a new war, is now wary of getting involved. He thinks the US may have missed its chance:

Early intervention — a coherent, active attempt by the U.S. and its allies to build up, finance and advise what was then a moderate opposition — might have worked. Now, though, the Assad regime is showing signs of real resilience, and the opposition is showing signs of real brutality. It is easy to blame Obama for his early passivity. It is slightly harder to blame him for looking at Syria as it is today and then choosing to ignore calls for deeper intervention on the side of the rebels.

And Conor Friedersdorf wants interventionists to consider non-military ways to alleviate suffering around the world:

When an interventionist wants to put boots on the ground, arguing that it’s necessary to save lives, it means asking ourselves, before acceding, “can more lives be saved by spending this money on anything other than a war”? The fact is that, even granting the smartest critiques of international development work, it is usually a better way to help people than war, and it engenders good feelings rather than blowback.