The Case for Arming Rebels

It was reported that a CIA commission found that arming rebels in civil wars is ineffective. That might not strike many who remember the 1980s as a shocker, but do its findings stand up empirically? After all, the Reagan administration funneled arms to Afghan mujahedeen fighters, a move often held up as an example of blowback and a reason not to arm rebels in Syria. But we largely accomplished our immediate goals of pushing the Soviets out of Afghanistan (we just botched the postwar plan after they left). I wonder if the CIA analysts eyeballed any of the countless scholarly articles on the subject. If they did, they would find a mixed bag, though one on balance in favor of their findings. On one hand, insurgents are winning a larger percentage of wars than they were in the pre-Cold War era, a function, at least partially, of outsider actors meddling. On the other hand, we all know the litany of Bay of Pigs-style botched covert operations.

Since World War II, nearly three out of five civil wars saw some kind of third-party intervention. The bulk of these have entailed the supply of arms, aid, and bases, not putting boots on the ground. Of the conflicts with no third-party intervention, the average length of conflict was 1.5 years. By contrast, those with outside intervention saw an average length of seven years. The longest of these wars typically were framed as part of a larger (and often nonexistent) Cold War narrative (not all were – Lebanon, Ethiopia, to name just a few). Scholars disagree on the precise mechanisms behind the role of aiding rebels. Some point to a greater number of veto players inhibiting peace settlements, while others point out that such outside support tends to be just enough to keep the conflict festering but not enough to provide a decisive outcome (For more on divisions within the scholarly literature on interventions, see my recent Washington Post Monkey Cage piece).

The CIA study is often mentioned as being in line with a 2011 article by Salehyan, Gleditsch and Cunningham. But these authors’ analysis focuses primarily on the role of transnational constituencies – ethnic diaspora communities and such – and their support for ethnic-kin rebels (Even in their appendix, they confirm that in over 80 percent of their cases, the third-party interveners were those with either transnational constituencies or rivals present). These authors’ main takeaway is not that arming rebel groups exacerbates civil wars but rather that transnational linkages can influence which group intervenes on which side (Though they give a pretty thin discussion behind the mechanisms of their findings, an oversight that prompted a whole book of essays from qualitative scholars criticizing their approach).

When the CIA comes out and, in effect says, “Arming rebels is bad – remember Nicaragua?”, we should be very skeptical.

Farmers and Doctors

In the case of Syria, what do we mean by supporting the rebels? In the early days, a no-fly zone or safe haven would have been required to truly affect the balance of power internally, not just supplying the opposition with non-lethal MREs. Contrary to previous calls by some that such a zone was “irrelevant” to Syria because of the regime’s non-use of fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters earlier on, soon Assads forces began carrying out brutal massacre after brutal massacre from just such aircraft, using crude barrel bombs throughout 2013. Indeed, from what we know about past civil conflicts, when regime forces are stretched thin and loyalties further from the center are called into question, it is common for the regime to turn to more indiscriminate attacks by air or by less disciplined proxy or paramilitary forces – counterinsurgency on the cheap, as it were. Those of us who have been howling for a no-fly zone were worried about something exactly like this from occurring.

Others, including our commander in chief, might say that the Syrian opposition was too fluid and fragmented and that flooding them with arms would have been a disaster upon arrival. But the idea that support for rebels composed of, as President Obama put it, “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists, and so forth” was always a doomed enterprise that felt  half-baked. As Frederic Hof of the Atlantic Council pointed out, many of these farmers and doctors served in Syria’s mandatory military service. Moreover, in one of the earliest wars of arming rebels the French intervention against the British during the American Revolutionary War the supply of arms after the Battle of Saratoga definitely tipped the balance of power in the Yankees favor (Of course, it helped that the French sent their navy too). Maybe it worked because there were fewer “veto players,” yet the revolutionary army was not without its opportunists and, yes, doctors and farmers.

That is to say, the takeaway should not be: Arming rebels is always a bad idea. That is crazy and counterproductive. Sure it was often done clumsily under Reagan. Consider this anecdote I unearthed about our meddling in Nicaragua. Reagan was seeking congressional support behind his administrations effort to back anti-communist rebels that had fled to Honduras and warned of a pending invasion by Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime. As the Guardian’s Michael White recounted, “So serious was the 1986 invasion that at its height President Azcona [of Honduras] went to the beach. Asked why he could take an Easter holiday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams gave a memorable reply. The Azcona family was out of town because they take Holy Week more seriously down there he explained.” This was the response by one of the most senior officials in charge of our policy in the region.



Maybe Syria falls into a similar category. Though maybe not. We don’t have a great track record when it comes to PROIN (pro-insurgency) but nor do we when it comes to COIN (counterinsurgency) either. Let’s face facts: Insurgents are winning more wars than in the past. This is due to any number of factors. Max Boot cites the importance of leveraging public opinion, which favors underdogs by limiting governments’ ability to wield overwhelming force, Sri Lanka, Syria, and Russia notwithstanding. Others point to the late-20th century weakness of post-colonial governments, the presence of lootable resources that allows rebels to fight indefinitely, and the increased presence of neutral peacekeepers, thus preventing swift and decisive ends to internal conflicts.

But when the CIA comes out and says in effect, “Arming rebels is bad – remember Nicaragua?”, we should be very skeptical. We have supported pro-democracy rebels going back to the Truman Doctrine with varied degrees of success. Our support has arguably produced favorable outcomes in places like Kosovo. Arguably our support of Libyan rebels in 2011 prevented a bloodbath and protracted civil war, despite the anarchy that has followed. This is not to argue we should be supporting rebels willy-nilly, nor that all rebels are deserving of outside support, which would create an obvious moral hazard. But when humanitarian interests are present, we should not let the world’s most cryptic agency tell us that arming rebels is unwise so best to stay on sidelines and do nothing (which, besides being the pot calling the kettle black, we should question the empirics of their findings as well as the politicization during an election year).

Anti-interventionists are corrected that by 2013 there were a lot of competing and confusing strands of opposition elements in Syria of dubious origins and intentions. But that was a consequence of our inaction, not a cause of it. Some have noted a “murkiness of the ‘terrorist group’ line” with respects to the rebels. Yet, that describes nearly every internal war. Rebels are rarely bookish groups of Jeffersonian PhDs with bayonets. In early 1998, the U.S. envoy to the Balkans called the Kosovo Liberation Army a terrorist group. Fifteen months later we were bombing Belgrade. Or consider Libya, whose opposition was anything but unified. It was riven by mass tribal tensions (Remember the killing of Abdul Fatah Younis, Gaddafis former interior minister and erstwhile rebel leader?). There was widespread speculation that Islamist extremists, both foreign and domestic, were threatening to unravel the opposition. As Hillary Clinton said in March 2011, arming the rebels was difficult because of the unknowns about who they were, their backgrounds and motivations.

It is impossible to know whether arming rebels in Syria would have ended the war or prevented the rise of ISIS (Former ambassador Robert Ford still believes there is enough of a “moderate” wing of the opposition that can still depose Assad). But we should not be drawing the wrong conclusions from studies like the CIA, which presumably draws heavily from our Cold War experience (I wonder if its analysts asked why 19th century interventions by major powers on the side of rebels were largely successful and led to shorter wars on average?). This is a very divided issue among civil war scholars. Treat a CIA finding on the matter commissioned by a president skeptical U.S. force with suspicion.

On the effectualness of arming rebels, the jury is still out.


[Photo source: Denis Bocquet via Flickr Commons]


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