Training and supporting insurgents against one's adversaries has been a cost effective strategy since the 20th Century, where states co-opt their adversary's enemies as proxy forces, avoiding the monetary cost of fielding the former's soldiers and the political cost of casualties. With the recent announcement that the U.S. is considering deploying the U.S. Army to train Syrian rebels en masse in a friendly third country in order to improve the insurgent's capability to erode the Syrian military, Washington might be heading down that path. Worryingly, this might backfire horribly.
Short Term Logic and Long Term Folly
We know that the CIA supported the Afghan Mujahedeen with weapons and training against Soviet forces during the latter's occupation of Afghanistan from 1978 – 89. Although this resistance cost the USSR dearly and contributed to their eventual withdrawal, it also destabilized Afghanistan and fostered a territory controlled by rival warlords who were no match for the Pakistani backed Taliban which ended up controlling most of Afghanistan. Needless to say, the Taliban ended up providing refuge and training grounds for Al-Qaeda, the prime terrorist threat to America.
Turning to Britain's support for insurgents who would eventually bite the hand that fed them, the communist lead Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army received guerilla training as well as arms from the British during World War Two but ended up forming the main body of the Malayan National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Malayan Communists during the communist insurgency in Malaya from 1948 – 60. Even as the British would eventually win this counter-insurgency campaign, it had to pay the price of 1865 British and allied fatalities and 2406 wounded.
Minimizing the Risks of Training Proxy Forces
Excluding the ostensibly secular Free Syrian Army and assuming that the U.S. would be able to screen out Al-Qaeda affiliates like the Al-Nusra front (one of the groups in the anti-Assad rebel coalition) from receiving combat training, the rest of the rebel alliance like the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, Al-Tawhid Brigade and Syrian Islamic Front are driven by Islamist ideology which would conflict with U.S. foreign policy including support for Israel and the global war on terror. Hence, there is a distinct possibility that anti-Assad regime insurgents given warfighting training by the U.S. and armed by sympathetic Arab governments could end up using their lethal skills against U.S. forces or interests in a future conflict.
While caution advises against widespread training of Syrian rebels, the instruction syllabus should be carefully designed to minimize any risk of strategic blowback on the U.S., if the Obama administration decides to go ahead and upgrade the skills of Syrian rebels. Specifically, any training program should strictly omit instruction on special forces type skills like combat demolitions and long range sniping, avoid teaching the rebels about commando tactics (i.e. enemy personnel seizure raids, sabotage operations and other missions) and leave out any mention of psychological operations and counter-intelligence measures. Essentially, training for the rebels should exclude skills useful for terrorism and/or assassination, preclude the possibility that the insurgency could acquire special forces capabilities that might be used against the U.S. in future and prevent the rise of violent Islamist leaders who have developed keen persuasive abilities while being resistant to Western/U.S. intelligence monitoring or surveillance.
On the other hand, training should concentrate on imparting the tactical skills and mindsets necessary to operate in disciplined groups of platoon, company and even battalion strength so that the insurgency can more effectively face the Al-Assad military and function despite casualties. Next, detailed instruction in the employment of anti-tank weapons and tactics along with the effective use of light artillery would help to even the odds against government forces. Additionally, effort should not be spared in inculcating a sense of professionalism and ethics amongst junior and mid-level commanders so that civilians will be respected and atrocities against captured government troops avoided. In essence, the training should not only sharpen the edge of the insurgency but also lay the foundation for a respected, professional and reformed Syrian military if the Al-Assad regime is ever deposed.
In as much as the Al-Assad regime needs to be actively opposed for reasons enunciated by the Obama administration such as the use of chemical weapons, it bears repeating that any friendly intent, if any, of Syrian insurgents towards the U.S. cannot be guaranteed over the long term. Hence, in order to avoid blowback from combat training provided to any Syrian rebel faction, Washington needs to be very circumspect regarding the type of warfighting training conducted so that the U.S. does not unwittingly sow the seeds for a future Hezbollah or Al-Qaeda. In short, Obama's foreign policy vis-à-vis Syria must avoid shooting America in the foot
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