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Last week, Congress voted to arm so-called moderate Syrian rebels to aid their fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. America has spent over two decades involved in the perennial crisis in the Middle East and if anything has exacerbated the problems greatly. We are disappointed with Congress’s decision, and fear that this course of action will result in further problems.
There seems to be no question that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria poses a severe threat to the rights and lives of those living within its sphere of influence. The group has conducted a violent persecution of other religious groups (including Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Yazidis and Mandaeans). Women are afforded little freedom and live daily in fear of rape and sexual violence. Clearly, something must be done.
However, arming and training Syrian moderate rebels should not be the first step. There is little indication of how these so-called moderate rebels will be identified, and what steps, if any, the U.S. government will take to ensure that these rebel groups continue to operate in ways that align with U.S. interests.
The U.S. does not exactly have good precedent on its side. A salient example is “Operation Cyclone,” the CIA initiative to arm Islamist guerrilla fighters against the Soviet Union. Those fighters included Osama bin Laden. Elsewhere, concerned about Iranian involvement in the area, the U.S. government also assisted the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein.
More recent examples show that supporting militants in the fight against ISIS has already produced mistakes. Conflict Armament Research, a private organization that tracks weapon supplies internationally, identified that ISIS has acquired U.S.-made weapons intended for other Syrian rebels. CAR has also found evidence that ISIS holds weapons (such as M16 and M4 rifles), which are the same models that the U.S. government provided to Shiite Iraqi forces. There is no guarantee that further shipments of weapons to the so-called moderates will not make their way to ISIS, thus arming the terrorist organization further.
The current plan of airstrikes has only been in place for about a month. The airstrikes also have support from other countries, such as France. Should these allied forces coalesce to execute a joint attack, the results could be deadly to ISIS. It is at least worth waiting until that time before the U.S. takes the risky step of arming rebel militias.
Of course, the airstrikes should be used conservatively. Continuing humanitarian aid for civilians is also critical. In the end, the ISIS situation in the Middle East is a complicated one. Alliances have been redrawn, and at the moment the U.S. stands allied with Iran and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The president and Congress cannot solve Syria’s complex challenge by their own fiat. The U.S. should learn from past mistakes and, for now, limit scope while still working to ensure the safety of women and religious minorities in the area.
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