Now that I’ve tried to make and defend the case for our current intervention against ISIS, I want to also expand on my reasons for skepticism about the kind of intervention that a number of hawks (including the next Democratic nominee for president, it would seem) believe would have made the current war unnecessary — that is, the kind of military support for Syria’s more moderate/liberal/secular rebels that, it’s argued, would have prevented more radical groups from getting traction in that conflict, and thus forestalled the rise of ISIS to its current bad eminence.
Which, indeed, such support might have done — possibly, theoretically, in the best of all possible worlds. But as we’ve seen in Iraq lately, American armaments in the hands of putative allies and clients have a way of finding their way out of those hands fairly easily, and into the service of causes they’re intended to oppose. And historically, injecting armaments into ongoing civil wars in an effort to influence their outcome has a mixed track record at best, according to literature which Marc Lynch, writing for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, summarizes and applies to the Syrian situation:
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.