The Vetting Trap

by Ameya Naik

President Obama recently proposed to provide “appropriately vetted,” moderate rebel groups in Syria with $500 million worth of weapons, equipment and training—if Congress approves the measure. The proposal, however, appears to face bipartisan opposition in the House and Senate alike. The key challenge remains the conduct of “appropriate vetting,” i.e. finding suitable, verifiably moderate recipients for such assistance.

To rebel forces holding out amidst escalating violence, vetting appears to be the worst kind of bureaucratic, procedural delay. The Assad regime has no supporters in Washington, diplomatic efforts are entirely stalled given the state of U.S.-Russia relations, and nobody at all wants Syria to fall to the Islamic State (IS) extremists. What path remains, ask Free Syrian Army leaders, except wholehearted support for the rebels? What does delaying such aid accomplish? Their consternation is understandable, but vetting remains the sine qua non of any such assistance, for a number of unassailable reasons.

Administrators (and taxpayers) have an incontrovertible right to know where and how their money will be spent, and what that aid will accomplish. That alone would justify the scrutiny of would-be recipients, but vetting today is far more important due to concerns that weaponry and expertise provided could be used against American nationals, allies, or interests. AsPatrick Cockburn points out, the link between CIA support for mujahedeen against Soviet invasion, the modern al-Qaeda threat, and the resurgence of extremism in Pakistan is well-established. Osama Bin Laden’s ghost hangs over this debate, chilling any progress.

To be considered suitable, a rebel group would thus have to show three things. First, that by receiving U.S. aid—even at this late stage—it can gain a military edge against Assad’s forces. Second, that it will remain friendly to America in the future, not trading today’s donor-oriented moderation for populist extremism and anti-Americanism tomorrow. And third, that it can prevent today’s extremists from stealing or capturing its equipment, or seducing or scaring away its newly-armed cadre, especially in the face of the superior firepower already captured by the Islamic State from the Iraqi military.

If, as seems likely, no group can provide such assurances in Syria today, then vetting currently demands guarantees from a war zone where none exist. Of course, meaningful guarantees and safeguards can exist, but those will have to be derived from the ultimate policy goal in Syria. Bear in mind that “remove Assad” is too limited a goal, at best suited only to the rebels; their American patrons and trainers should be working to secure a more well-defined vision of a post-Assad Syria.

Herein lies the key lesson: if stability is the goal, regime change alone is no longer an option, and half-hearted engagement leads only to stalemate. Engagement need not be military, but—in whatever form—it must seek to proactively and creatively shape the post-conflict scenario so as to secure America’s vital interests in the region. Merely calling for a political solution accomplishes little, unless it is backed by efforts to convene and strengthen moderate forces on the basis of a shared commitment to non-violent conflict resolution and inclusive governance.

Years of repressive dictatorship, followed by exceedingly brutal conflict, have left the Syrian polity and society fractured and deeply polarized. In this scenario, trying to back any one faction to the exclusion of another or others is untenable. Even if such a faction does come to power on the basis of external sponsorship, it will only embitter their rivals, who may even gain legitimacy in the eyes of the public. As the experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq attest, if the new governments then harbour their own autocratic ambitions, the recurrence of conflict and renewed extremism is only a matter of time.

This scenario demands a strategy of “strengthening the fragile middle“: just as investors confront political risk by hedging their bets, political engagement can find the necessary guarantees by cultivating multiple moderate allies as insurance against extremism. Indeed, former Ambassador Robert Ford had initiated precisely such engagement by courageously visiting protesters in Hama in 2011; tragically, that opportunity was squandered, and militant extremism gained credence as the bulwark of anti-Assad resistance. Lacking sponsors to empower, protect, and connect them, even such coalitions of moderates as may exist are likely to find their political space constricted, to the point that moderate representatives vanish from any position of consequence. The fog of war does the rest: again, there is simply no faction in Syria today whose moderate credentials can be adequately verified.

To be sure, even if such a faction or coalition were identified, strategic engagement on the basis of shared values would do little to guarantee their military victory against either government forces or IS extremists. The most likely prognosis for Syria is a war of attrition: prolonged low-intensity warfare, at considerable human cost, with no clear victor emerging. Such engagement would, however, help break the vicious cycle of impasse, covert aid, backlash, and recrimination, replacing it with a clearer understanding of the interests and limitations in play. It would go a long way towards ensuring that U.S. and Syrian rebel interests align, and be the first step to building a stable and inclusive Syrian opposition that can offer what the rebels today cannot: a credible alternative to Assad that enjoys both domestic and international legitimacy.

About the Author

Ameya Naik is a dual degree MALD-LLM student at The Fletcher School, with a focus on rule of law in post-conflict states. He is a research scholar at The Takshashila Institution, an independent public policy think-tank based in Bengaluru, India.

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