U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategy to counter the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq has three central components: pressuring the Iraqi government to change its policies that fuel support for IS and to rebuild its military; conducting U.S. airstrikes to weaken IS and prevent it from gaining an outright military victory; and training and equipping militias to fight IS on the ground, including Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syrian rebels. All of these components are shaky to one extent or another, but the third is the most precarious of all, reflecting the Obama administration’s desperate effort to balance multiple pressures, priorities and goals.
Getting much out of the Syrian rebels was a long shot from the start. Case after case shows that arming rebels without a U.S. presence on the ground seldom works. Without American advisers in Syria, and with the rebels fighting a two-front war against IS and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the relationship between Washington and the “moderate” rebels is prone to failure. The rebels are deeply divided and have demonstrated little battlefield prowess, yet they do have a propensity for human rights abuses and for forming alliances of convenience with radicals. While the Obama administration wants them to defend territory rather than go on the offensive against IS, the rebels themselves claim that with more weapons and U.S. air support, they could take the extremists on more aggressively. There is little evidence that this bravado is warranted.
Why, then, support the Syrian rebels at all, given the risks and the low probability that they will play a major role in bringing down or even containing IS? It is true that the Obama administration’s backing of the rebels makes little sense from a purely military standpoint, but it does make sense from a broader policy perspective.