The “un-vetted” Syrian opposition

During the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s hearing on Syria this week, Sen. Corker referred several times to the “vetted opposition” to Bashar al-Assad. Corker had in mind, I gather, the Free Syrian Army which is deemed by Secretary of State Kerry, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and others to be an effective, non-extremist, and not wholly corrupt rebel fighting force.

How seriously should we take the vetting of the Free Syrian Army? Not very. McCain couldn’t even vet the folks who participated in his photo op with that organization.

Rebel groups, especially if they are “secularist” and not overbearingly ideological, tend to be somewhat inchoate outfits whose members, including leaders, join up for differing reasons and may well drift from one group to another, depending on such factors as how they are being treated and who has the upper hand. There have been reports that this is true of the Free Syrian Army. Thus, the Free Syrian is probably a mixed bag

It’s possible that the Free Syrian Army is everything that Kerry, McCain, and Graham say it is, but I wouldn’t base our Syria policy on that possibility.

But neither would I base our policy on some of the assumptions about the “un-vetted” opposition that I’ve heard from opponents of U.S. intervention.

I don’t dispute the radicalism and downright evil of these groups, and it’s undeniable that they have been an effective fighting force. What I question is the assumption that, if Assad is ousted, the extremists are bound to prevail, making Syria look something like pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Like the Pollyannaish view of Kerry, McCain, and Graham, the pessimism of some opponents of intervention seems more like an a priori conclusion than one based on the evidence.

Yes, the extremists have the upper hand in Northern Syria, but that doesn’t seem to be the case elsewhere. Yes, the extremists reportedly are better armed than the vetted opposition. But why isn’t that an argument for arming the “vetted” folk, as some nations in the region (but not so much the U.S.) are starting to do?

Yes, the extremists are bolstered by a flow of foreign fighters. But isn’t there a good chance that, in the long run, Syrians will chafe at foreign fighters, making reliance on them a mixed blessing?

It’s true that extremists often have the advantage during a life and death struggle against ruthless, bloody tyrants. They tend to be better able to fight fire with fire. But that advantage doesn’t necessarily sustain itself, especially if less extreme forces have outside backing.

Finally, it’s an exaggeration to say, as I have heard said, that al Qaeda style extremists consistently have been the winners in Muslim countries when old regimes fall. They haven’t won in Iraq. Nor have they won in Egypt, where a less extreme incarnation (the Muslim Brotherhood) is very much on the run.

What should we expect in Syria if Assad falls? Possibly some sort of internationally brokered settlement. More likely, continued and inconclusive fighting involving the vetted opposition, the unvetted opposition, and Allawite forces — fighting that could lead to something like a de facto partition of the country.

That’s not a wonderful outcome. But it’s also not an outcome that poses danger to the U.S. or, to any significant extent, Israel. A post-Assad Syria will likely confront too much internal turmoil to look outward for problems.

What should we expect if Assad prevails? An Assad victory would strengthen Iran’s position, gaining it prestige in the region and at home. Regime change in Iran would become less likely. An Assad victory would provide Iran with a proxy state of considerable strategic and geopolitical significance. Iran’s ability to project power and cause trouble would be enhanced.

Thus, an Assad victory is the worst plausible outcome of the Syrian civil war. This, I believe, is a proposition upon which we can base our Syria policy, at least to the point of using air power and providing assistance to the rebel faction we favor.

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