Back to the future

The Obama Administration needs to arm the Free Syrian Army to prevent another Spain or Afghanistan

Free Syria Army fighters in Saraqeb 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS / Handout)
Free Syria Army fighters in Saraqeb 370 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS / Handout)
Winston Churchill once said, “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” The Spanish Civil War and the Afghan conflict provide guidance for the course the West should take in Syria.
Syria’s civil war began in March 2011 with protests against the regime of Bashar Assad. The government’s forceful repression of peaceful demonstrations led to defections from Syria’s armed forces and the formation of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). After raging across the country, fighting reached the capital Damascus.
As in the Syrian case, dissident army units began Spain’s civil war in July 1936 to overthrow the Spanish Republic. After over two and a half years of brutal fighting, the Nationalist forces under General Francisco Franco defeated the Republicans, finally took Madrid and imposed a fascist dictatorship.
Foreign powers aided both sides. Nazi Germany, Italy and Portugal helped the Nationalists and the Soviet Union and Mexico supported the Republicans. The Germans sent tanks, aircraft squadrons and 16,000 men to fight for the Nationalists. Italy sent 50,000 men with planes and tanks to aid Franco. France gave only fleeting aid to the Republic in 1936 and Britain provided no support. The Nationalist victory led to Spain’s economic and military support of the Nazi-led Axis powers during World War II.
Iran, Hezbollah and Russia have backed Assad’s regime with arms, as well as economic and diplomatic support. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have bankrolled Syria’s rebel army and supplied it with weapons.
Despite this aid, the FSA remains outgunned and most of the Saudi and Qatarisupplied weapons have fallen into the hands of Islamist jihadists.
Despite the urging of the CIA, the Pentagon and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, US President Barack Obama has consistently refused to arm the rebels. The United States has confined itself to intelligence and non-military assistance to the FSA.
The Obama Administration should consider other models, for example America’s backing of the Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet Union in the 1980s. After its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviet Army faced an insurgency consisting of various groups of Afghan mujahideen. In 1986, the Reagan administration decided to supply the rebels with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to counter the Russians’ aerial superiority. This decision changed the course of the war, as Soviet helicopters, jets and transport planes were shot down. The Soviet Union began withdrawing from Afghanistan and by 1989 the Red Army had completed its pullout.
The Afghan Communist regime fell three years later, but civil war between the victorious rebels soon followed. At this point Pakistan stepped in. Its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) organized the Taliban militia, sending in weapons and tens of thousands of Pakistani army regulars. In September 1996, with the fall of the capital Kabul to the Taliban, Pakistan achieved its objective of a friendly regime.
The consequences soon turned deadly for the US and the West as Al-Qaeda established training camps in Afghanistan, from which it planned and organized the 9/11 attacks on America.
The Spanish and Afghan conflicts show that the sides, which intervene decisively in a civil war, benefit to the detriment of non-participating powers.
The question of the Syrian war’s aftermath must be considered in this light. Iran and Hezbollah have already begun building a group of Syrian militias to be used in the event of the regime’s overthrow. The role of jihadist forces inside Syria has also grown in the past year.
A war between the Syrian rebels is a real possibility. Will pro-Western forces win such a conflict or will the Islamists or jihadists? Syria is a strategic country in the heart of the Middle East. An Islamist/jihadist center there would threaten Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel.
While ensuring the best possible safeguards, the US must arm the moderate and secular Syrian rebels. As a matter of US national security, the Obama Administration needs to reverse course and supply the Free Syrian Army to prevent another Spain or Afghanistan.
Naim M. Peress is a lawyer and writer based in New York.