Key parties to the conflict in Syria are meeting in Switzerland Wednesday. The participants have been downplaying expectations that the “Geneva II” peace conference – which will bring together for the first time representatives from the Assad government and various rebel groups along with major international players – will resolve the conflict, or even bring about a cease-fire. For the U.S. government, the crucial issue at this meeting and beyond is determining if and how to intervene and provide support in a conflict where there may no longer be real “good guys,” or supporters of U.S. national interests, to back. This is particularly important given Washington’s interwoven interests throughout the region – not only in Syria, but in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond.
U.S. support of the Afghan Mujahedeen against the Soviet Union during the Cold War teaches two valuable lessons for the current Syrian conflict. First, understand who we are helping, what their goals are and how these goals may differ from those of the United States. Second, think in advance about the endgame.
In Syria, the U.S has been rightly careful about whom to aid – but as a result, the U.S. government has provided very little aid and thus created a void that others have filled. It is not yet clear whether Washington understands its own endgoals for the conflict and is communicating clearly how to achieve them. As history has demonstrated, this lack of clarity can lead to fateful unintended consequences. U.S. policy in Afghanistan in the 1980s provides a telling example.
Beginning in 1979, President Jimmy Carter authorized the CIA to send minimal assistance to Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet Union. The Reagan administration vastly increased this aid, to a high of more than $600 million a year in 1987. The Saudi government matched all U.S. funds.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. goal was to prevent the Soviets from gaining a stronghold – not to establish a viable Afghan state. Thus, the CIA provided large sums of aid to the Mujahedeen rebels, but largely left the decision about which rebels to fund to the intelligence service of Pakistan, our close ally in the region. That intelligence service, the ISI, provided much of the aid to commanders associated with anti-American, radical Islamist leaders.
When the Soviets left in 1989, Washington decided it had little interest in ensuring a stable Afghanistan – and this apathy allowed the country to disintegrate into a civil war by the early 1990s.
With Washington turning a blind eye, Afghanistan was conquered by the brutal Taliban regime that provided the critical safe haven for Al-Qaeda. The terrorist group had a sanctuary to develop and expand – and the Sept. 11 attacks followed just a few years later.
The Afghan story mirrors today’s challenges in Syria. In contrast to Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Obama administration has (rightfully) been careful to supply arms only to vetted Syrian rebel groups. As a result, however, Washington has delivered very little military aid. The CIA has trained only about 1,000 rebel fighters this year.
By contrast, intelligence analysts estimate that Iran and Hezbollah have trained more than 20,000 or more to fight for the Assad government-supported militias.
The U.S. has overlearned one lesson from Cold War era Afghanistan – our timidity has left the moderate Syrian rebel groups and our traditional friends in the region reeling. Fed up with U.S. inaction, the Sunni kingdoms and some hard-liners have filled the void. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and private conservative Sunni donors in several Gulf States are now delivering arms and aid to some rebel groups that Washington considers dangerous.
It is right for the United States to ascertain who gets its arms and aid. But we now need to both step up the effort and lean hard on our friends in the region. Washington must particularly convince Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent Kuwait, to first, stop supporting any rebel group that is arguably Al-Qaeda-affiliated, and second, crack down on private citizens in their countries who are funding the most threatening hard-line groups.
To do this effectively, the United States must implement the second lesson from Afghanistan: the endgame matters.
If the U.S. government has a clear view of what type of regime we are willing to live with in Syria, and communicates this to our allies, it will be easier to convince them to coordinate their rebel aid efforts with Washington. We must reassure them that the United States is fully engaged in this crisis, and will not let a Hezbollah-supported Assad government, or an extremist Sunni government take hold and destabilize the entire region. Washington’s feeble efforts to date are insufficient.
This message grows in importance as Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups rage on in Iraq – recently capturing what was a hard-fought U.S. foothold in Fallujah – and as the Sunni-Shiite conflict destabilizes both Lebanon and Jordan.
There are fewer “good guys” to support in Syria now than there were in 2011, but – as Washington is beginning to realize – standing by helplessly is not a viable option. Similar to our robust diplomacy in Bosnia in the 1990s, which was backed by substantial aid to Croat and Bosnian forces and a credible threat of U.S. force, bold steps are required to end the conflict that is splitting the Middle East at its religious seams.
The United States and its allies should focus on these steps – such as threatening military action to degrade President Bashar Assad’s war machine and arming the remaining moderate opposition to defend itself, rather than putting its energy into negotiating incremental steps toward peace that may not take root.
Anja Manuel served in the State Department from 2005 to 2007, working on policy for Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. The opinions expressed are her own.