Over the weekend, an alarming figure appeared in the Washington Post:
“Probably 60 to 80 percent of the arms that America shoveled in have gone to al-Qaida and its affiliates,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma.
If true, that’s an absolutely stunning indictment of the CIA’s initiatives to arm “moderate” rebels in Syria. But wait. Charles Lister, a generally unimpeachable expert on the Syrian Civil War, scoffs at Landis’ claim and does a little back-of-the-bar-napkin math on Twitter:
Landis’ figure does sound a bit high, especially given that, as Lister points out, representatives from MOC and MOM—the CIA’s programs to arm rebels in the south and the north respectively—frequently provide debriefings on their progress and the MOC’s equipment loss numbers are reportedly very low.
But even if you swallow Lister’s far smaller numbers, that means one to two out of every 10 weapons provided by America were seized either by ISIS or a subsidiary of the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Some more back-of-the-bar-napkin math: the total cost of the CIA’s program is reported to be roughly $1 billion annually. That means every year the United States is spending $100 million to $150 million in weapons, training, infrastructure, and personnel to bolster jihadists. Try making that pitch on the campaign trail and see where it gets you.
And that only accounts for instances where U.S.-handled rebels directly lost their weapons. Al Qaeda’s role in the Syrian Civil War is far more fluid than that. While ISIS is enamored with carnage, the Nusra Front (al Qaeda in Syria) has demonstrated an insidious and incrementalist pragmatism that’s allowed it to develop credibility among Syria’s beleaguered Sunni majority. Its tendrils have extended across the battlefield accordingly. At one point or another, much of the Syrian rebellion has at least informally collaborated with the Nusra Front. So maybe only 10 percent of our weapons ended up in their hands, but what about when they were used in joint operations with Nusra forces? What about when they helped advance al Qaeda’s objectives?
Look at the bigger picture. If Assad is deposed, the natural inheritors of his rule will be the aforementioned Sunni majority, which has found representation in al Qaeda. Even if the Free Syrian Army maintains a presence in Damascus, even if the Kurds keep some territory too, a post-Assad Syria will be far more accommodating to al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Islamists, Salafists—the very enemies we swore to destroy after 9/11. Our policy of arming the rebels is making that scenario more likely.
You don’t need a bar napkin to figure out that’s a dumb idea.