Mark it down: it’s official. President Obama’s plan to arm the Syrian rebels has gotten Americans killed.
The murders occurred in Jordan, home of a bulging black market for military hardware. The weapons in question—including mortars and RPGs—were initially shipped to Syria as part of a CIA program called Timber Sycamore, which mentors rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s government. According to a New York Times exposé, the arms were stolen by Jordanian officers and ultimately used by a policeman to shoot up a training compound in Amman. Two Americans were killed in that massacre, from the barrels of guns supplied by their own government.
It’s another demerit for the White House’s crackerjack Syria policy, and perhaps an inevitable one. Hawk-eyed (but not hawkish) observers of the Syrian theater knew it was only a matter of time until something like this happened. Despite caterwauling that Obama is letting Assad slip through his fingers, his weapons initiatives have been both exorbitant and reckless. Among them was the shambolic Pentagon plan that somehow managed to spend $500 billion and deploy fewer than half a dozen rebels.
The CIA’s gunrunning has been more effective, but that’s hardly immunized it against calamitous blunders. Last autumn, Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma issued an alarming estimate: between 60 and 70 percent of weapons intended for “moderate” rebels had been seized by al-Qaeda. That number seemed a bit high, and vehemently anti-Assad Syria expert Charles Lister quickly scoffed at it on Twitter. The real figure, he said, was likely between 10 and 15 percent—not two-thirds, to be sure, but still “reprehensible,” as even he admitted.
That vast gulf of estimation—maybe 10 percent, maybe 70 percent—illustrates the problem with our Syrian arms bonanza. Because so much of this is being done covertly and so much more is unknowable even to the CIA, we have no idea how many taxpayer-funded weapons are vanishing into the Syrian desert.
Hawks have long presented arms shipments as tidy and bloodless transactions, in which guns are ferried from Point A to Point B and dictators magically fall from power. But weapons, like money, are fungible, which means in the sprawling illicit bazaar of the Middle East, Point B can yield Points C, D, and E, and Point E is sometimes a jihadist.
The Pentagon has already admitted that fighters it trained from the so-called Division 30 relinquished at least a quarter of their American-supplied weapons to Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. (“If it’s true, this defection was expected. We warned those in charge of the program,” a spokesman for Division 30 told the Daily Beast.) This is a feature and not a bug: Nusra is the best-funded and best-equipped faction of the rebellion, and lately has been tightening its grip around the “moderate” groups. Back in March, Nusra militants swarmed a town in Idlib province controlled by the Free Syrian Army, where they seized weapons furnished by the West.
There’s also the matter of the Islamic State, which has taken to launching attacks with American-provided Humvees it captured from Iraq. When ISIS captured the Syrian city of Hasakah from Assad’s government last year, it released photographs documenting its use of TOW anti-tank missiles—courtesy of the red, white, and blue.
Amnesty International recently investigated this subject and its findings were painful. ISIS fighters, it reported, had obtained most of their weapons from “poorly secured Iraqi military stocks,” most of them equipped by America, as well as from “arms supplied to armed opposition groups in Syria by countries including Turkey, the Gulf States and the USA.” That ordnance, Amnesty said, had been used to perpetrate tortures, murders, and rapes.
This is far bigger than even the horrific murders in Jordan. Who knows how many Americans—and Kurds and Alawites and moderate Sunnis—have been killed with our promiscuously dispensed weaponry?
Yet on we go. American jets are presently air-dropping even more weapons into Syria. Perhaps it’s time to air-drop a dictionary on the White House, with the definition of “insanity” highlighted in yellow. Ronald Reagan’s observation that “the nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program” is alive and well.