Every day seems to bring fresh, horrific revelations of atrocities in Syria, which Amnesty International says amount to crimes against humanity. The latest news concerns the Sunni village of Al Heffa in the northwest, where UN monitors found “fiery devastation, the smell of death, vacated homes, looted stores and vestiges of heavy weapons.”
The Obama administration remains committed, it appears, to staying on the sidelines of this growing crisis, but it is finding it hard to ignore entirely the cause of the rebels. Thus, the Wall Street Journal reports, U.S. diplomats and intelligence operatives have increased contacts with the opposition. But rather than provide arms directly to the Free Syrian Army, the U.S. representatives are content to let Gulf states do the dirty work. As the Journal notes, the “U.S. in many ways is acting in Syria through proxies, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.”
On the surface this may appear to be “smart power” in action: Why should the U.S. take the lead if allies are willing to do it? But actually this is a fundamentally dumb and dangerous policy which risks repeating the same mistake the U.S. made in the 1980s when we subcontracted the arming of the Afghan mujahideen to the Pakistanis and Saudis. Who did these fundamentalist-dominated states choose to support? Not surprisingly, the bulk of their support went to brutal Afghan fundamentalists such as Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyr–closely connected to an obscure Saudi financer named Osama bin Laden–rather than to more moderate and pro-Western figures such as Ahmad Shah Massoud. We are now paying the price for building up Haqqani, Hekmatyr, et. al: They have gone from fighting the Red Army to fighting NATO forces and their allies in Afghanistan.
For this reason, I am considerably alarmed by news of the growing Saudi, Emirati and Qatari role in Syria. These are not the countries we want determining the future of Syria. Yet the longer we stand on the sidelines, the more their role will grow. Heaven help us if their proxies come to power in Syria as they eventually did in Afghanistan.