Opening Pandora's Box

April 14, 2016
The day after Congresswoman Shea-Porter voted in 2014 against training moderate Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State, I thanked her for her vote and informed her that I was leaving her congressional staff. I departed on a personal high note having argued that arming the moderate Syrian rebels could have similar results to the 1980s arming of Afghanistan's Mujahedeen, which led to al Qaeda, that not deploying American ground troops in concert with arming rebels or with airstrikes could create power vacuum for the Islamic State to expand like President Obama's “biggest regret” of “failing to plan for the day after” the 2011 airstrikes against Libyan Col. Muammar Gaddafi's forces, and that any American military action needed a buy in from the American public.

European partition of the Ottoman Caliphate after World War I created extremely complex nation states by not considering their ethnic or religious compositions. A century later, a popular uprising against Syrian President Bashar al Assad devolved into combatants protecting their own, the dissolution of the North South artificial Iraqi-Syrian border, and the establishment of the Islamic State in its place. Over the past five years, to preserve his Alawite sect's hegemony, President Assad has killed 183,827 mostly Sunni Syrians. Meanwhile, despite their headline grabbing brutality, the Sunni Islamic State has only killed 2,196 mostly Shia Syrians. These statistics from the Syrian Human Rights Network explain why the mostly Sunni moderate Syrian rebels fight to end the Syrian regime, the root cause of the Syrian Civil War, and not the Islamic State, which is just a symptom.

Since 2013, the CIA has been covertly paying, training in Jordan, and arming moderate Syrian rebels with American weapons such as TOW antitank missiles from Saudi Arabian stockpiles. For a billion dollars annually, this program has sent nearly 10,000 rebels, known as the Knights of Righteousness, back into southern Syria to fight the Assad regime. Meanwhile, the Pentagon's 2014 program that the congresswoman voted against was meant to overtly train an anticipated 5,000 moderate Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State. Last fall, this $500 million program introduced a force of 54 into Syria and Al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, immediately took their leader and equipment. The Pentagon has since deployed Special Forces into northeastern Syria to arm, advise, and call for air support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, an overwhelming Kurdish force seeking a self-autonomous Kurdish region or nation from the Islamic State territory they retake. It was announced just last week that 250 additional Special Forces will be deployed in Syria to support the Syrian Kurds.

Last September, in order to protect their only naval base on the Mediterranean, Russia began demonstrating the benefits and perils of overtly supporting their besieged Syrian ally with airpower and ground forces. Eighty to 90 percent of Russian sorties indiscriminately targeted the moderate Syrian rebels, ending not only their advance on Damascus, but their years-long hold on territory around Aleppo, Syria's prewar financial capital. In addition, the decimated Knights of Righteousness faced advances from the Islamic State in northwestern Syria and the Syrian Democratic Forces from northeastern Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces' expansion westward like an invading Kurdish army towards the outskirts of Aleppo has resulted in reports of America now fighting itself by proxy.

Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin's mission accomplished moment, an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 Russian military personnel remain in Syria serving as everything from artillerymen to combat advisors to their Israeli-made drone operators. On forward operating bases, long-range bombers are being replaced by attack helicopters to provide counterinsurgency and close air-support to the ongoing operations. Meanwhile, memorial services were held last month for the Russian soldiers killed from their attack helicopter going down. Although there are numerous differences comparing America arming rebels fighting the regime and Russia arming a regime fighting rebels, there are fewer differences between Russia arming Syria to fight Syrian rebels and America arming Iraq to fight the Islamic State.

My experience of watching an armored personnel carrier from the Iraqi Infantry battalion I was advising retreat in a firefight against an insurgent with an AK-47 left me doubting the Iraqi Army's resolve and ability to defend Iraq without significant assistance from American ground forces. Since March, my old 9th Iraqi Armor Division has been playing a major role in the Iraqi Army's offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq's former second largest city. The 4,500 mostly Shia Iraqi troops participating are equipped with U.S. supplied Humvees, light arms, and anti-tank missiles, and are augmented by Shia militias, Kurdish forces, and American surveillance, air support and artillery.

Several weeks ago, a Marine was killed and eight others wounded when the Islamic State rocketed Fire Base Bell, located just fifteen miles from the Islamic State. The small outpost's hundred plus Marines and their four 155mm howitzers provide daily fire support, smoke screens, and illumination for the Iraqi offensive. However, similar to how the Iraqi Army surrendered their uniforms, weapons, and vehicles in June 2014 as the Islamic State approached Mosul, the Iraqi Army led offensive has stalled. In response, this week the Pentagon announced that in addition to the 5,000 American service members already serving in Iraq, the deployment of both Apache attack helicopters and some 200 combat advisors that can now embed with Iraqi battalions.

The United States has helped liberate a quarter of Islamic State territory despite the dizzying number of groups working out of tandem to accomplish often polar objectives. Meanwhile, my arguments against arming the moderate Syrian rebels may be coming to fruition. Fears are growing of extremists being able to down an airliner due to a second Syrian Air Force jet being shot down in less than a month and it's pilot captured by the Nusra Front, despite the United States, Turkey, and the Persian Gulf states supposedly refraining from arming Syrian rebels with surface-to-air missiles. Furthermore, in recognizing that arming the moderate Syrian rebels or providing air support will not create stability, more service members are joining the 11,000 Americans that have already fought to defeat the Islamic State without any buy in from the American public.