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Saturday, Jul 06 2013 11:37 PM

DOUGLAS BORER: The conundrum with arming Syria's rebels: You're damned if you do, damneder if you don't

In order to maintain America's strategic interests in the Middle East, the Obama administration has decided to funnel arms to the Syrian rebels through third party affiliates.

Doing so is perilous, but not doing so holds even greater risks.

My uncle, a farmer in the dry badlands of Eastern Montana, was forever testing new types of seeds to get a better yield. He was fond of saying, "Doug, sometimes it's damned if you do, and sometimes more damned if you don't." His words are appropriate for this moment in American foreign policy.

The peril is clear: Many of the fighters who would use American weaponry to defeat the Assad regime might later turn those weapons against American installations, American military personnel, and even "soft" targets like civilian jet liners.

We witnessed this ally-turned-enemy dynamic prior to the attacks of 9/11 as some of the heroic U.S.-sponsored Mujahideen groups that pushed the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the 1980s morphed into our fiercest enemies: al Qaeda and the Taliban. Why would we be so foolish as to tempt repeating history?

For better or worse, the United States started a war in Iraq in 2003 that disrupted the regional balance of power and a new configuration has yet to stabilize.

As then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, invoking the so-called Pottery Barn rule, once told George W. Bush about Iran, "You break it, you own it."

Did we ever. By removing Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration solved one problem but ushered in four new inter-linked challenges.

First, Bush and Cheney's "war to spread freedom" has succeeded all too well. The Arab Spring and the Islamist wave it has brought to power is a reality: There is no stopping it.

However, the U.S. must be careful in choosing which Islamists to hug and which to do harm upon. Doing so will be a long and difficult process that undoubtedly will sometimes go awry.

Damned if you do.

Second, the outcome of the war in Syria must be understood as a regional security challenge. Syria's blood soaked leader, Bashar al-Assad, like Saddam Hussein, is a staunch secularist, but his regime, which was close to collapse three months ago, has now rebounded and is winning the war.

This change of fortunes has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with combat power. Syrian forces are being propped up by a fiercely anti-U.S. regime, Iran, and its fanatical Lebanon-based proxy, Hezbollah. If Assad wins, his new friends will see to it that he is a secularist no longer. As a result, Israel's security situation will worsen and Iran's desire for regional hegemony will advance. More damned if you don't.

Third, to make matters worse, Russia has decided to break out of its post-Soviet international hibernation and throw its weight behind Assad.

Bad luck, Mr. Obama, but Czar Vladimir is your problem now. Damned if you do.

Fourth, the Iraq war unleashed the centuries-old sectarian split between Shia and Sunni Islam that has now spread to Syria. The Muslim world is now entering a phase of history that may very well resemble the 30 Years' War between Catholics and Protestants (1618-1648).

In sorting out Christianity's role in politics, that nasty historic event produced massive waves of refugees, raging pestilence and intense human suffering that reduced Europe's population by more than a third.

The U.S. may not have much influence over this fight, but taking steps to contain it requires action in Syria.

Funneling arms to fuel Assad's overthrow should happen regardless of whether or not we end up empowering Sunni fanatics. Defeating Assad in Syria would break the Shiite arc of power running from Tehran to Beirut, and it just might keep Iraq independent from Iran. More damned if you don't.

Indeed, most points on the geo-political compass are bleak.

However, if the Russo-Iranian-Syrian Axis is allowed to crush the rebellion, other solid U.S. allies in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the smaller Gulf States will be put in jeopardy.

At this stage there will probably be no "good" outcome in Syria, but perhaps a good-enough one can be managed.

Doing so is a risk worth taking to correct the growing imbalance of power that is now emerging.

Douglas A. Borer is an associate professor in the Department of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. The views expressed here are his alone.

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