Syria’s seven years of war have been indelibly shaped by foreign interventions. Both the Assad regime and the rebel coalition that opposes his rule owe their continued existence to support from the outside. The most spectacular, and decisive, of these interventions was the air war that Russia launched against rebel forces in September 2015. Discussions about the United States’ role in Syria’s war, on the other hand, tend to focus on what the United States did not do – on why it never intervened militarily to topple the Assad regime, the way Russia intervened militarily to support it.
These discussions, while important, neglect the equally important US decision to provide arms, training and material support for the armed revolution in Syria, and to assist its allies in the region in sending far greater amounts of support.
Without this support, a sustained armed revolution against the premier police state in the Arab world would have been impossible. Indeed, when the United States withdrew their support in 2016-2017, the armed revolution quickly collapsed. These two “turning point” decisions – to begin providing lethal support to the uprising, and later, to withdraw it – were both taken behind-the-scenes, without public debate. They also permanently changed the course of the war.
Beginning in the autumn of 2011, the United States and its allies began providing funding, supplies and weaponry to Syria’s burgeoning armed rebellion. To those Syrians who were willing, this arms pipeline provided the means to fight back against a regime that had been killing protestors for six months and turn a protest movement into a full-scale civil war.
Over the next six years, billions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons flowed to Syria’s rebel groups, usually airlifted into Turkey or Jordan and then smuggled across the border. At first, the weapons were supplied mostly by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, while the CIA provided logistical assistance.
For several years, this assistance was at odds with stated US policy. On 11 April 2013, Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones testified to the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, “We do not believe that it is in the United States or the Syrian people’s best interest to provide lethal support to the Syrian opposition.” By then, the CIA had already been involved in the airlift of some thirty-five hundred tons of weapons into Syria.
The fact that the United States was apparently reluctant to arm the opposition directly, and initially restricted itself to providing logistical support for its allies’ operations in Syria, is sometimes taken as evidence that the United States was not leading the effort but being led. Perhaps the United States was hoping, by its involvement, to restrain its allies, prevent jihadists from acquiring the weapons being distributed, and retain some influence over the course of events in Syria. But this view of the United States as a reluctant player warrants some skepticism. As Aron Lund says, in the Syria conflict, “for reasons of evident geography, the Gulf states have always been forced to work through regional allies, and they also appear to have relied quite heavily on CIA coordination and facilitation.”
One cannot help but see a parallel in Saudi Arabia’s current war in Yemen: the United States often complains about the war’s atrocious human toll, but Saudi Arabia is carrying out the war with US-supplied bombs, and with US planes refueling Saudi bombers in mid-air. Researchers should not be too quick to accept US pretensions to reluctance in its participation in Middle East conflicts. Future research may yet reveal Washington as the driving force behind the Syrian intervention, as it was in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
In any case, by June 2013, the United States began providing support directly to Syria’s rebels. With President Obama’s go-ahead, the CIA launched a one billion dollar operation called “Timber Sycamore” to supply Syria’s rebels with weapons and support, including US-made anti-tank missiles. By the end of the program, an estimated one hundred thousand pro-regime fighters had been killed by CIA-backed groups in Syria (out of a total war toll of around five hundred thousand).
Crucially, though, the United States never gave the opposition enough support to actually defeat the regime. In April 2014, one rebel commander summed up the situation: “The aid that comes in now is only enough to keep us alive, and it covers only the lowest level of needs.” Another rebel leader angrily, but persuasively, noted, “We know that if you wanted to, you could topple Bashar al-Assad in ten days.” Charles Lister likewise compared the CIA program to “drip-feeding the opposition groups just enough to survive.” The intention of this “no victory, no defeat” aid strategy may not have been to prolong the Syrian civil war indefinitely, but that was the predictable effect.
The US intervention also affected Syria’s war in another way. Despite repeated claims from US officials that only “vetted,” “moderate” groups in Syria were receiving support, jihadist groups were ultimately the best poised to take advantage of the US-backed weapons flow. The jihadists were bolstered by foreign cadres hardened from earlier conflicts, received semi-discreet backing from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, enjoyed more ideological coherence than the loose coalition of non-Islamist rebels, were hindered by fewer local attachments and conflicts, and were less restrained by humanitarian or international PR concerns. Early on, the jihadists became the opposition’s strongest players.
Debate continues about how US policy affected this development. Charles Lister claims that the moderate opposition never received enough support from its foreign backers to defeat the jihadists (or resist the jihadists’ seizure of weapons provided by those backers). Sam Heller argues that the moderate opposition was never going to subordinate their fight against the regime to a fight against fellow rebels, whether they were jihadists or not. Regardless, in the final analysis, the jihadist movement in Syria was empowered by the US-backed weapons flow into Syria, much of which found its way into the jihadists’ hands. The jihadists’ resulting prominence undermined popular support for the opposition and drove Syria’s multi-religious population closer to the Assad regime.
In March 2015, an al Qaeda-led rebel coalition seized Idlib province. In that battle, US-supplied antitank missiles gave the rebels a crucial edge. That fall, with the Syrian regime retreating on multiple fronts, Russia launched a massive bombing campaign against the opposition, making it clear that they would never countenance Assad’s fall. That commitment was not matched by the United States. It was President Trump who officially terminated Timber Sycamore in June 2017, but President Obama who allowed the rebel stronghold in East Aleppo to fall, offering little more than rhetorical resistance to the regime’s signal victory.
Without the United States in the rebels’ corner, Jordan and Turkey both moved to mend ties with the Syrian regime and with Russia, and the Gulf States found themselves without the partners they needed to bring weapons to their proxies in Syria. The regime followed its victory in Aleppo with the re-conquest of Eastern Ghouta and Dara’a, leaving Idlib as the last rebel stronghold in Syria. As Syrian and Russian forces bore down on Dara’a in June 2018, the US Embassy in Amman released a curt statement advising the rebels not to “base your decisions on the assumption or expectation of a military intervention by us.” Within weeks, resistance in Dara’a evaporated.
Determining the full impact of US support for Syria’s revolution – and its later withdrawal – will require a great deal of research in the future. But while the Syrian civil war cannot be reduced to US intervention, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that US decision-making was crucial both to the war’s prolongation and to the uprising’s eventual defeat.
The consequences of these decisions for Syria’s civilian population have been horrendous. One may sympathize with policymakers making difficult choices about a complicated region. But all of this was easily foreseeable, and foreseen. Way back in October 2011, as the first decisions about arming Syria’s rebels were being made in Washington, an article in International Organization by Salehyan, Gleditsch and Cunningham summarized existing political science research on foreign intervention this way: “Civil wars with outside involvement typically last longer, cause more fatalities, and are more difficult to resolve through negotiations.” It seems clear that Syria is no exception to this rule. In the future, scholars, policymakers, and concerned citizens should give American support for rebel groups – whether in Syria, Nicaragua, Angola, or elsewhere – the analytical and moral attention it deserves. It can be at least as important an “intervention” as airstrikes.
[Other roundtable submissions can be found here]