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The cost of “ghost wars” in Syria

“Ghost wars,” a phrase coined by journalist Steve Coll in his novel “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001,” refers to foreign countries contributing weapons or other means of assistance to rebel causes in another country. A current application of the term is in Syria’s ongoing civil war, where Turkey, the United States as well as various Arab nations, are providing Syrian insurgents with weapons and training.

Qatar mobilized its own special forces in order to provide Syrian opposition forces with training as well as technological assistance. Saudi Arabia set up a center in Adana, a city near the Syrian border, to oversee the training of the Free Syrian Army, the main opposition force in Syria. Obama recently authorized greater non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition cause.

The reasons for foreign involvement in Syria vary. Bashar al-Assad’s forces have recently re-taken control of the embattled district of Sala Al Din in the Syrian city of Aleppo. With the rebels suffering such losses, foreign countries increasingly feel the need to aid them, particularly with al-Qaeda looming in the background and waiting for a chance to seize control of the opposition efforts. U.S. intelligence has been continuously operating at the Syrian border along with Turkish authorities to ensure that Syrians don’t obtain weapons from al-Qaeda. Saudi Arabia is drawn to Syria because Saudi Arabia hopes to encourage the formation of a new, friendlier Syrian government.

However, the costs of waging “ghost wars,” are great, and are demonstrated in past experiences in Afghanistan where Saudi Arabia and the US cooperated to aid rebel forces. During the Cold War, the American CIA pumped approximately $200,000 a month to Ahmad Massoud and his multi-ethnic Islamic guerrilla organization. While the combination Arabian and American efforts did succeed in toppling the then Afghan government, it also contributed to instability in the county and allowed for radical Islamist groups to gain power, with far-reaching implications.

The consequences of past experiences like Afghanistan should be applied to the current situation in Syria. The costs associated with such occurrences call into question whether or not contributing assistance to the various opposition rebel forces is entirely worth it. In fact, in the end it seems that this type of rebel assistance only bring about radicalism, suppression as well as further instability to a country rather then freedom and solidity.

Saudi Arabia, who is the Syrian rebels’ foremost benefactor, has a track record of backing extreme, conservative groups internationally. In fact, Saudi Arabia is expected to eventually throw its weight behind Islamist groups within the Syrian opposition. Can the opposition group in exile deliver on its promise of a pluralistic, democratic state, if extreme, radical groups are strong? It seems doubtful that the country can gain stability under the power of a radical group.

Additionally, further issues arise when foreign countries support different opposition forces and each patron country has a different criteria for which group should see success. As each foreign state picks their “favorite,” group, it drives wedges between different groups, when solidarity is so unnecessary to not only achieve a divisive end to the civil war, but also build a new beginning in a country. In the case of Syria, the Turks support groups that keep out Kurds, the Americans support liberal opposition groups, while Saudis want the most pious opposition group to gain power.

In the case of Afghanistan after the Cold War, Saudi Arabia and Iran backed different radical groups, with Iran backing the Shia Hazara Hezb-I Wahdat and Saudi Arabia supporting the Ittihad-I Islami faction. The conflict between the two radical groups escalated into full-scale war, preventing the formation of a working government, police unit or justice system. The country essentially descended into a state of lawlessness until the Pakistan-backed Taliban came in to fill the power vacuum. Differing views amongst the foreign nations on which group should dominate Syrian politics suggest that even if the current government is ousted, the political instability may not end any time soon.

While foreign countries are prioritizing the success of insurgent groups against the incumbent government, a larger focus should be placed on what allows for increased stability in a nation after the government is toppled. Comparisons of the aftermath of government transitions have indicated the importance in having opposition solidarity, lessened violence and opposition groups willing to compromise and work together if a new nation is to be built.

Since foreign aid to rebel causes will probably never end on the international stage, aid towards encouraging cooperation between the groups is necessary if bloodshed is to end and political stability is to ensue. Funding is necessary for encouraging dialogue amongst members of the opposition about the formation of a transitional government as well as to create ways for current rebel forces to better feel a sense of unity amongst themselves, rather then as individual forces. Otherwise, prospects for a strong, representative government are grim.