Americans would probably be surprised to learn that their government was arming affiliates of Al Qaeda. But this is essentially what President Barack Obama is about to do.
Syria’s Bashar Assad has carried out unspeakable violence, with as many as 100,000 dead, if not more. There currently are at least 17 armed jihadist groups rebelling against the Syrian regime, including Jabhat al Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate “that has emerged as one of the most effective rebel factions in Syria,” according to The Associated Press.
And yet the White House has signaled that it is moving toward arming the Syrian rebels.
We have received no public details on how the administration intends to fund arms to these rebels, the vetting criteria U.S. officials will use to distribute weapons or how it intends to monitor the chain of custody over these weapons to assure they do not end up in the wrong hands.
Congress cannot provide its oversight function without making these key details public. The Intelligence Committee’s concerns over how these weapons might be misused have slowed their deployment in a further indication of how treacherous this effort is.
Most important — if the Constitution still matters — the president needed to ask Congress for authorization to arm these rebels. He did not.
We’ve seen this movie before. As The New York Times reported in December 2012: “The Obama administration secretly gave its blessing to arms shipments to Libyan rebels from Qatar last year, but American officials later grew alarmed as evidence grew that Qatar was turning some of the weapons over to Islamic militants. … The experience in Libya has taken on new urgency as the administration considers whether to play a direct role in arming rebels in Syria, where weapons are flowing in from Qatar and other countries.”
Any attempt to aid the Syrian rebels would be complicated and dangerous, precisely because we don’t know who these people are. To the degree that we do know who they are, we know that significant numbers of them are associated with Al Qaeda — as many as 10,000 fighters, by some estimates.
If the United States wants to choose a side in Syria, there is no clear moral choice. More important, there is no clear U.S. national interest in Syria.
There is also the question of what happens to Syria’s 2 million Christians. As a minority, these Christians have generally been protected by Assad’s regime, but have been targeted by some of the rebel groups. Imagine if the United States delivered weapons to extremists who, in turn, used them against Christians. Imagine the tragic irony of aiding the same Islamic radicals we have asked American soldiers to fight in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
No question, the Assad regime has committed monstrous atrocities. But this does not mean that the Syrian rebels are in any sense the “good guys.” In Syria, the enemy of our enemy is not our friend. And rebel groups like Jabhat al Nusra are the same enemy we’ve been fighting since Sept. 11, 2001.
Consider the recent reversal by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Last year, Dempsey reportedly endorsed a proposal by then-CIA Director David Petraeus to arm vetted members of Syria’s rebel opposition but has since reconsidered his position. Now, Dempsey says he is unsure that the United States “could clearly identify the right people” to aid or arm in Syria. “It’s actually more confusing on the opposition side today than it was six months ago,” Dempsey testified in April.
Dempsey is not alone in his uneasiness. According to the latest Pew Research Center poll, more than 70 percent of Americans oppose intervening in Syria. And for good reason: Americans are sick and tired of being dragged into Middle East quagmires.
That is why I have introduced bipartisan legislation along with Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) that would prohibit the president from providing military aid to the Syrian rebels without congressional consent.
The United States should never get involved where we have no clear national interest. We should not intervene militarily in a country like Syria, where we can’t separate friend from foe and might end up arming the very people who hate us the most.
Rand Paul represents Kentucky in the U.S. Senate.