I understand that President Obama feels he is taking the least awful option in Iraq and Syria for dealing with ISIS. But as the NY Times editorial board points out, arming one side of a civil war (the "moderate" Syrian rebels) to defeat two different sides that we're against (ISIS and the Asaad regime) is not exactly a foolproof plan.
During the three-year-long Syrian civil war, Mr. Obama has been rightly reluctant to provide significant weapons and military assistance to the Syrian rebels. From the beginning, it was nearly impossible to determine the makeup and character of the rebel groups, of which there are about 1,500, according to James Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence.
Groups identified by Western intelligence agencies as the moderate opposition — those that might support democracy and respect human rights — have been weak, divided and without coherent plans or sustained command structures capable of toppling the Assad regime. Today, those so-called moderates are even weaker and more divided; in some cases, their best fighters are hard-line Islamists.
In ruling out sending American combat troops into yet another Muslim country, Mr. Obama’s plan relies on these rebels to serve as ground forces to defend and seize territory after American airstrikes in Syria, for which he needs to seek congressional approval. But training and equipping them will be complicated and risky, and will take months, if not longer. ISIS, which the C.I.A. said Thursday has as many as 31,500 fighters in Iraq and Syria, is already well-equipped and has proved to be stunningly skillful at waging war and seizing territory in both Iraq and Syria.
Despite efforts by the United States and others to persuade the insurgent groups to unify under a common political and military command structure, there is still no shared leadership. In fact, these groups may be close to defeat in Aleppo, where they are fighting both the Assad forces and ISIS.
And let's be honest here: we're getting involved in Syria's civil war and the Sunni/Shi'a divide at the same time. ISIS is hardcore, extremist Sunni, and the reason they've been able to take territory in Iraq and Syria is because both governments have been oppressing Sunni minorities for the last several years. Sunnis in Iraq and Syria are happily helping ISIS, in fact many of ISIS's top military commanders are ex-Iraqi and Syria military who were relieved of their jobs by Asaad's secular government and Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'a-backed government.
Iraq has a new government now led by Haider al-Abadi that's literally about a week old, but he's Shi'a as well and nobody knows if they will start going after Sunnis again. Certainly after all these years the Sunnis in the area don't trust the Iraqi government. Why should they they trust the Shi'a?
And of course the biggest Shi'a player on the board is Iran. And hey, let's remind ourselves that arming Middle East rebels has not exactly been the greatest idea in US military history over the long-term.
Look, I support President Obama and always will, but if this is the best choice we have, the situation in Iraq and Syria is pretty much a stone's throw from totally screwed.