The latest brilliant plan to curtail Isis in the Middle East? Give more weapons to current members of al-Qaida. The Daily Beast reported that former CIA director David Petraeus, still somehow entrenched in the DC Beltway power circles despite leaking highly classified secrets, is now advocating arming members of the al-Nusra Front in Syria, an offshoot of al-Qaida and a designated terrorist organization. Could there be a more dangerous and crazy idea?
Petraeus was forced to respond on Tuesday, the day after his article provoked a firestorm, telling CNN’s Jake Tapper that he doesn’t want to arm al-Nusra itself, just “some individual fighters, and perhaps some elements, within Nusra”. He thinks the US could somehow “peel off” these fighters and convince them to join the much weaker rebel army that al-Nusra recently decimated. Oh okay, then. He’s in favor of arming only the “moderate” members of al-Qaida: that sounds so much better.
Let’s put aside for a second that there’s not much difference between arming al-Nusra and arming “some individual fighters, and perhaps some elements, within Nusra.” How the US can possibly “peel off” fighters from a terrorist group is a complete mystery. In Iraq – Petraeus is apparently using part of the largely failed Iraq “surge” as his blueprint here – he convinced some Sunni tribes to switch sides temporarily, but that was with over 100,000 US troops on the ground to do the convincing. Does Petraeus think we should invade Syria to accomplish the same feat?
The idea that we should add more weapons to the equation, let alone give them to militants who the US considers terrorists, is preposterous at this point. Depressingly, escalating our involvement is the dominant talking point in Washington’s foreign policy circles these days.
History could not matter less to war planners, as the dangerous cycle of arming dangerous factions in the Middle East and escalating US involvement is about to start anew. The CIA armed the Mujahideen in the 1980s in their guerilla fight against the Soviets, many members of the Mujahideen would end up forming the core of al-Qaida in the 1990s.
Isis, which was originated inside squalid US prison camps from George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and which also has billions of dollars in US weapons and armored vehicles thanks to a series of embarrassing mistakes and battlefield routes of all the foreign militaries we arm, eventually turned on al-Qaida. So now an ex-CIA director is suggesting that we also arm a part of al-Qaida directly, since they are now the enemy of our (larger) enemy.
Remember that one of the reasons the US claimed it could go ahead and bomb Syria without any congressional authorization in the first place was because of the allegedly ultra-dangerous “Khorasan Group” which was a group of supposed terrorist masterminds within al-Nusra, and that the US was in “imminent” danger from this previously non-existent group. The US has continued to target al-Nusra with missiles in recent months.
Continually ignored in the debate over arming Syrian rebels, is that the CIA itself produced a study that concluded that arming any rebel force, whether they are a notorious terrorist group or not, is generally a bad idea. The study found that most of the time such attempts either fail spectacularly or backfire in the face of the US, even if they initially succeed. This study, which is still classified, was apparently disregarded by the Obama administration and there’s no proof Congress even saw it when voted to arm the “moderate” rebels in the first place.
There’s also the much larger question over the Obama administration’s continued refusal to require a war authorization from Congress. As the Guardian’s Sabrina Siddiqui first pointed out, how could this half-baked plan possibly square with the administration’s already-absurd theory that the declaration of war against al-Qaida allows them to indefinitely go to war with Isis as well?
Petraeus is likely not the only one who thinks this plan to work with and arm members of the al-Nusra front is a good idea. There are probably many faceless officials and spooks who are pushing the same agenda in Washington, but Petraeus is the only one with enough clout to go ahead and say it out loud (since we already know he is above the law). Now you can expect a bunch of fresh hot takes explaining how Petraeus is right and we should be arming al-Qaida.
If history and common sense tell us anything, its that this plan won’t succeed. But let’s, for a moment, assume the entire 67-year history of the CIA is wrong and that it this actually does work. The US arms members of al-Nusra, they become a powerful fighting force, push back Isis and eventually lead a rebellion that overthrows Assad. Where are we then? Well, we know US war planners don’t usually think that far ahead.
[Trevor Timm is a Guardian US columnist and executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a non-profit that supports and defends journalism dedicated to transparency and accountability. Follow him on Twitter: @TrevorTimm]