Policy Analysis No. 734

Arms and Influence in Syria: The Pitfalls of Greater U.S. Involvement

By Erica D. Borghard
August 7, 2013

In the midst of growing public wariness about large-scale foreign interventions, the Obama administration has decided to arm the Syrian rebels. Those who call for increasing the scope of U.S. aid to the Syrian rebels argue that (1) arming the rebels is the cheapest way to halt a humanitarian catastrophe, hasten the fall of the Assad regime through a rebel military victory or a negotiated settlement, and allow the Obama administration to influence the broader direction of Syrian politics in a post-Assad world; (2) failure to step up U.S. involvement will damage America’s credibility and reputation in the eyes of our allies and adversaries; and (3) U.S. objective scan be accomplished with a relatively small level of U.S. commitment in Syria.

These arguments are wrong on all counts. There is a high risk that the decision to arm the Syrian rebels will drag the United States into a more extensive involvement later, the very scenario that the advocates for intervention claim they are trying to avoid. The unique characteristics of alliances between states and armed non state groups, in particular their informal nature and secrecy about the existence of the alliance or its specific provisions, create conditions for states to become locked into unpalatable obligations. That seems especially likely in this case.

The specific way the administration has chosen to increase the scope of its support to the rebels sets the stage for even greater U.S. commitment in Syria in the future. The Obama administration, therefore, should not have decided to arm the Syrian rebels.

Looking ahead, it is important for policymakers to understand the nature of alliances between states and armed non state groups even after the Syria conflict is resolved. Given that Americans are unwilling to support large-scale interventions in far-flung reaches of the globe, policymakers looking for military solutions to political problems may conclude that arming proxy groups may be an attractive policy choice. They should instead, however, avoid committing to conflicts that don’t threaten core national security interests.

Erica D. Borghard is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University. Her dissertation concerns proxy warfare and the conditions under which nonstate groups can involve their stronger allies in foreign policy misadventures.