Finding the Right Rebels to Arm in Syria May Be Tricky


Although Rand Paul has abandoned the skepticism he recently expressed about the threat posed by ISIS, the libertarian-leaning Kentucky senator continues to argue that President Obama must obtain congressional approval for his war against the terrorist group, and he continues to question the wisdom of arming and training Syrian rebels. Yet it looks like the closest thing we will see to a congressional declaration of war in this conflict is a vote to arm and train Syrian rebels.

Here is what Paul had to say about that strategy at a Q&A session in Dallas on August 29:

What have we been doing in Syria for the last year? We've been arming the Islamic rebels. Who do the Islamic rebels want to kill? Christians, other minorities. And have they been doing it in Syria? Yes, they've captured priests and bishops and killed them in Syria. And who are some of these Islamic rebels? We say we only gave [weapons] to the nice ones, the ones that say, "Please, sir, can I have another shoulder-to-air missile or another anti-tank weapon?" The ones that were nice, we called them moderates, but there was at least one Republican senator [John McCain] who was over there having his picture taken with the "moderate" rebels, [and it] turns out some of them may have been part of ISIS….It's difficult to tell friend from foe….

When it came to my committee, I was one of only like two people who voted no. Everybody, every Republican, every Democrat voted to arm these rebels. But I told them…that some of these arms may well be used against us at some point in time….They tell you, "Oh, I love America. Just give me my Stinger missiles."…It's a little hard to determine who is your friend and who's not, and they will lie, frankly, to get our weapons.

Even after declaring his support for Obama's new war, Paul continued to be wary of using Syrian rebels as proxies for American troops. "Syria…has become a jihadist wonderland," he wrote in Time last week. "In Syria, Obama's plan just one year ago—and apparently Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's desire—was to aid rebels against Assad, despite the fact that many of these groups are al-Qaeda- and ISIS-affiliated. Until we acknowledge that arming the Islamic rebels in Syria allowed ISIS a safe haven, no amount of military might will extricate us from a flawed foreign policy."

As Robby Soave noted on Tuesday, some of those supposedlly moderate Syrian rebels supported by the U.S. may have sold American journalist Steven Sotloff to ISIS, which later beheaded him in a horrifying video that probably did more than any other single factor to boost support for the new war—the war in which we are relying on moderate Syrian rebels to help defeat ISIS. A story in today's New York Times provides further reason to worry about Obama's strategy of shoring up the right rebels:

After more than three years of civil war, there are hundreds of militias fighting President Bashar al-Assad—and one another. Among them, even the more secular forces have turned to Islamists for support and weapons over the years, and the remaining moderate rebels often fight alongside extremists like the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria.

"You are not going to find this neat, clean, secular rebel group that respects human rights and that is waiting and ready because they don't exist," said Aron Lund, a Syria analyst who edits the Syria in Crisis blog for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace….

Analysts who track the rebel movement say that the concept of the Free Syrian Army as a unified force with an effective command structure is a myth….

"There's a lot of skepticism about this piece of the president's strategy," said Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, a member of the House Intelligence Committee. "The so-called moderate rebels have often been very immoderate and ineffective."

Despite that supposed skepticism, Congress is about to bless this dubious strategy, even as it shies away from authorizing the war itself. "In a rare show of unity with President Obama," the Times reports, "House Republican leaders will summon their fractious members back to the Capitol a day early next week to push through legislation to authorize the military to train Syrian rebels for the fight against Islamist militants."