Originally published in National Interest on 6/11/13
The debate about whether to arm the Syrian rebels is centered around the question which groups are “good” rebels (those who favor democratic regimes and the United States) or “bad” rebels (various kinds of jihadists). The Obama administration is widely reported to be reluctant to aid Syrian rebels due to the difficulty of identifying “leaders who are committed to a unified, democratic Syria that respects minority rights” as opposed to “militants who might turn them against Western interests.” In Dissent, Michael Walzer finds that his readers “would be happy to see the victory of Syrians who have been studying John Stuart Mill or who take their cue from Swedish social democracy,” which he warns is not going to happen.
By focusing on whether or not the rebels favor democracy, the United States risks falling into the same moral trap that ensnared it in Libya. There, Washington found itself supporting rebels who committed very similar atrocities to those committed by the forces it came to save them from, namely Qaddafi’s goons. A recently issued report from the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria accused Syrian rebels of “war crimes, including murder, extrajudicial killings and torture . . . perpetrated by anti-government armed groups.” The American media paid little attention to reports that nearly half of those killed in Syria are not rebels or civilians on their side—but Alawite. Both sides almost never take prisoners, but kill those who surrender. And the rebels put snipers on roofs of schools in session.
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