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Why arming Syria's rebels wouldn't have stopped ISIS

These Syrian government fighters pose with the weapons they already have.
These Syrian government fighters pose with the weapons they already have.
STR/AFP/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

One of the most common criticisms of Obama's foreign policy is that he failed to arm moderate Syrian rebels in time to beat Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and curb the Islamic State (ISIS) threat. The argument is that arming moderate Syrian rebels would have prevented ISIS from rising in Syria, invading Iraq, and prompting Obama's air strikes in northern Iraq this week. Hillary Clinton, Obama's former Secretary of State who proposed a plan to arm the rebels while in office, made a version of this case in her recent interview with Atlantic interview with Jeffrey Goldberg.

There's one teensy problem with this argument: most of what we know about civil wars says it's wrong. An insightful essay by George Washington University's Marc Lynch explains why.

Writing in the Washington Post, Lynch runs through a litany of social science, comparing the claims Clinton et al. make about Syria to what usually happens when nations arm rebel factions. Lynch's conclusion is very simple: the Syrian war had "the worst profile possible for effective external support" actually succeeding:

The academic literature is not encouraging. In general, external support for rebels almost always make wars longer, bloodier and harder to resolve (for more on this, see the proceedings of this Project on Middle East Political Science symposium in the free PDF download). Worse, as the University of Maryland's David Cunningham has shown, Syria had most of the characteristics of the type of civil war in which external support for rebels is least effective. The University of Colorado's Aysegul Aydin and Binghamton University's Patrick Regan have suggested that external support for a rebel group could help when all the external powers backing a rebel group are on the same page and effectively cooperate in directing resources to a common end. Unfortunately, Syria was never that type of civil war. Going claim by claim, it gets even more impressive.

Could the US have gained control of the rebels by upping their aid? No, says Lynch — the rebels' foreign sponsors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait were giving them tons of money, and internal rivalry between the Saudis and Qataris meant there was no way to coordinate their efforts. The rebels would always be hopelessly divided.

Could the US have made the rebels strong enough to beat the Syrian government or ISIS? No again. Lynch cites research by the University of Chicago's Paul Staniland finding that giving "material support" to rebels is "unlikely to trigger deep organizational change. This means that foreign backing for undisciplined groups will not do much."

And no, the US probably couldn't have even found "the good rebels" anyway. Research from MIT Professor Fotini Christia, according to Lynch, finds that loose networks of rebel groups almost always collapse into each other. It's impossible to keep track of who's on whose side absent clear organizational structure. Indeed, Lynch points out, even America's current, very limited "support the rebels" policy has backed groups that have aligned with ISIS.