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The Obama administration is too cocky about Syria

The U.S. reportedly has decided to send small arms to Syrian rebels and is preparing to deliver these arms through bases in Turkey and Jordan that have been used to provide non-lethal assistance. According to the Washington Post the decision to supply arms predates the CIA’s conclusion with “high certainty” that regime forces have used chemical weapons against Syrian rebels.

The decision is said to have been clinched not by that conclusion, but rather by growing confidence that we understand the various rebel factions well enough to be make sure the weapons we supply won’t fall into “the wrong hands.” As Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser put it, the U.S. is capable of delivering materiel “not only into the country, but into the right hands.”

I don’t doubt that we are capable of delivering weapons to the groups we intend to give them to; nor do I question our ability to identify rebel factions that are not now dominated by the worst kind of extremists. The problem is that we cannot control what happens to the weapons after we deliver them.

This problem is compounded by the fact that, from all accounts I’ve seen, the composition of various rebel groups is in constant flux. Fighters tend to migrate from one faction to another.

We also know from John McCain’s ill-fated photo opportunity that even groups we think have “the right hands” contain individuals whose hands are “wrong.” To make matters worse, the New York Times reports that “even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government.” According to the Times, “nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.”

With the situation in flux but trending in favor of extremists, it’s not a huge leap from commanders who “want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government” to commanders prepared to wage war against secularists, and against U.S. interests and allies.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Obama administration is making the wrong decision by arming rebel groups; the alternative may be a victory for Hezbollah and for Iran. But it does mean that a major component of the administration’s justification for finally arming rebels is seriously flawed.

We should keep in mind, however, that the kinds of weapons we apparently are supplying are of the “light” sort, so that it won’t be the end of the world if some fall into “the wrong hands.” But by the same token, because the weapons are “light,” it’s questionable whether they will achieve our purpose of affecting the course of the civil war.

The administration is probably trying to act incrementally — start with lighter arms and see if they are enough to have the desired impact; if not, maybe supply heavier arms and perhaps even consider some kind of aerial intervention That’s not an unreasonable approach.

But if heavier arms are provided, it will then matter that the administration seems seriously to underrate the likelihood that they will fall into the hands of Islamic extremists.

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