Like many others, I am deeply disturbed by the current situation in Syria. The appalling atrocities. The tragic loss of human life. The reported use of chemical weapons. This deserves the clear condemnation of the international community. But, I am also concerned by the growing fervor for intervention in this war. By the rush to judgment for the United States to yet again become entangled in a civil war.
The President has decided to send arms to the rebels to fight the government of Bashar al-Assad. The full scope of this intervention is not yet clear. But this path is dangerous and unnecessary.
The Assad regime is cruel and corrupt. We can all agree on that point. But many of the groups fighting against him do not share our values and could be worse. They may pose long-term risk to us. And to our allies. Assad’s enemies may very well be America’s enemies. The fact is, we do not know.
A number of experts, including our military brass, have sounded alarms. Warning that the options to intervene in Syria range from bad to worse. And could prove damaging to America’s strategic interests. I was one of just three senators on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to vote against arming these little known and unorganized rebels.
By flooding Syria with weapons, we risk arming those who ultimately may seek to do us harm. We have been down this road before. And recent history tells a cautionary tale. In the 1980s, the United States supported a rebel insurgency to repel the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Back then, as now, many members of Congress pushed for arming these rebels. The United States supplied weapons, intelligence and training. With the goal to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Our short-term victory had tragic consequences for the future. Radical members of the insurgency formed the Taliban regime. Giving safe haven to terrorist training camps. Providing material support to Osama bin Laden and his fledgling Al Qaeda movement. Through state-sponsored terrorism in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda thrived. And perpetrated attacks on the USS Cole and the World Trade Center on 9/11. The aftermath has been more than a decade of war.
With tragic loss of American lives and treasure.
This is history to learn from, not repeat.
And yet many who advocated for previously disastrous Middle East interventions are leading the charge. To arm groups we know little about. And to declare war through air strikes on another Middle Eastern country.
What little we do know about the Syrian rebels is extremely disturbing.
The opposition is fractured. Some are sympathetic to the enemies of the United States and our allies – including Israel and Turkey.
There are reliable reports that some of the rebels even include Iraqi Sunni insurgents – the same groups who killed many United States troops. And still target the current Iraqi Army and government.
We know that American law currently considers some of the rebel elements to be terror groups. The U.S. has designated one of the key opposition factions, the Nursa Front, as a terrorist organization for being an al Qaeda-affiliated group.
And we know that human rights violations have been committed on the rebel side as well. That there are rebel groups opposed to American values. Indeed, opposed to the most basic human values.
Take, for example, a video recently released by rebel fighters. Where one rebel carves the heart and liver out of the dead body of a government soldier. And eats the heart. Those around him do not even flinch as they cheer on his cannibalism.
Will we be arming these fighters? We simply don’t know.
The opposition is very unorganized. They lack a chain of command. They are subject to deadly infighting. And if they are able to defeat Assad, they may turn on each other. Or worse, the United States or our allies.
Simply put, once we have introduced arms, neither we nor their fighters may be able to guarantee control over them. Such weapons could end up in the hands of groups and people who do not represent our interests. Possibly including terrorists who target the United States, our allies like Israel and Turkey, and the Iraqi Army and government. An Iraq that we spent billions of dollars and thousands of American lives to establish.
Given this reality, those who are pushing for military intervention should answer three basic questions:
Can arms be reasonably accounted for and kept out of the hands of terrorist and extremist groups?
Can they assure us that those arms will not become a threat to our regional allies and friends, including Israel, Turkey and the government of Iraq?
And if the answer to the two previous questions is no, then can they explain why transferring our weapons to the rebels—whose members may themselves be affiliated with terrorist and extremist groups—is a sensible option for the American people? What national interest does this serve?
I do not believe those questions have been answered. I think the majority of the American people agree. They do not see the justification for our intervention in this civil war.
We need to slow down this clamor for more weapons and war to Syria. And take a step back from this plunge into very muddy and dangerous waters.
Stopping radicalism and protecting our allies is of vital importance. However, we come to the ultimate question. And one that has not been adequately answered. Will this hasty march to intervene in another Middle Easter conflict achieve these goals?
Or will it ultimately harm the interests of the United States? Leading to yet another bloody, costly overseas conflict? And ironically worsening the terrorist threat?
We should listen to the lessons of history. After over a decade of war overseas, now is not the time to arm an unorganized, unfamiliar, and unpredictable group of rebels. Now is not the time to rush headlong into another Middle Eastern civil war.
The winds of war are blowing yet again, and we should be ever vigilant before we venture into the storm.