Skip to main content

Helping Syrian rebels a dangerous risk

By Rand Paul, Special to CNN
updated 6:49 AM EDT, Thu May 30, 2013
Rebel fighters from the Al-Ezz bin Abdul Salam Brigade train near the al-Turkman mountains in Syria.
Rebel fighters from the Al-Ezz bin Abdul Salam Brigade train near the al-Turkman mountains in Syria.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rand Paul: U.S. has a habit of picking the wrong sides in Mideast conflicts
  • Paul: First, U.S. supported Gadhafi in Libya; switched sides to support rebels
  • We don't know who the rebels in Syria are, he says
  • Paul: We must also consider how rebels might treat Syrian Christians

Editor's note: Rand Paul, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Kentucky.

(CNN) -- The United States has a history of often picking sides in Middle East conflicts to its own detriment.

In the 1980s, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld met with Saddam Hussein to establish a relationship that helped the dictator gain access to American arms during Iraq's war with Iran. In the 1990s, the U.S. would drive former ally Hussein from Kuwait and impose a decade of sanctions that were devastating for Iraqis, but had little effect on the dictator. In 2003, we went to Iraq, overthrew Hussein, and became part of nation-building effort from which we only recently saw most of our soldiers return home.

Arguably one of the greatest beneficiaries of the Iraq war was Iran, which now enjoys more power and influence with the elimination of its historic enemy. President George H.W. Bush did not pursue Hussein directly during Operation Desert Storm precisely because he feared the destabilizing effects it might have on the region, or as his Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney explained in 1994, "Once you got to Iraq and took it over, took down Saddam Hussein's government, then what are you going to put in its place?" Today, Iraq is unstable and its future uncertain.

Moammar Gadhafi eventually accepted responsibility in the 1988 bombing of an airplane over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed hundreds of people, including American schoolchildren.

President Reagan called Gadhafi the "mad dog of the Middle East."

McCain: Syria trip intensified feelings
Haass: America has been global policemen
Syrian rebel: A massacre is coming

Fast forward to 2008, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to Libya to meet with Gadhafi to offer American support.

In 2009, members of the U.S. Senate -- Republicans Lindsey Graham and John McCain and an independent, Joe Lieberman -- would travel to Libya to meet with Gadhafi to offer further aid. Sen. McCain said: "We discussed the possibility of moving ahead with the provision of nonlethal defense equipment to the government of Libya." President Obama would eventually meet with Gadhafi to reconfirm the same relationship established during the Bush administration.

By 2011, President Obama was arming Libyan rebels and ordering airstrikes to overthrow Gadhafi. Some of the president's most vocal supporters were the same Republicans who traveled to Libya two years before to help Libya's strongman acquire military equipment. Sen. McCain said of the Libyan rebels: "I have met with these brave fighters, and they are not al Qaeda. ... To the contrary: They are Libyan patriots who want to liberate their nation. We should help them do it."

We did help them, something I opposed on the Senate floor as an unconstitutional overreach by the executive branch. We now have reason to believe that the Libyan rebels did contain elements of al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists.

Visit strengthens McCain's resolve for U.S. intervention in Syria

Now we see the same enthusiasm for another U.S. intervention, this time in Syria. The Syria Transition Support Act approved last week by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which I am a member, has the potential to create more problems for the United States than it would solve. It is unclear what national security interests we have in the civil war in Syria. It is very clear that any attempt to aid the Syrian rebels would be complicated and dangerous, precisely because we don't know who these people are.

The situation in Syria is certainly dire. At least 70,000 people have died, and al Qaeda is making confirmed inroads into the country. No one wants to see Syria become a bastion of extremism. But like other American interventions in the past, U.S. involvement could actually help the extremists.

There is also the quandary of nearly 2 million Christians who are uncertain of what to do. The Christian community in Syria has traditionally sided with, and been protected by, Bashar al-Assad's regime. It is troubling to think that American arms may be given to Islamic fighters who may in turn be firing them at Christians.

This month, it was reported that the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front in Syria executed 11 men who were part of al-Assad's forces. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is no friend to the U.S. -- but neither is al Qaeda. To aid members of al Qaeda in any way, directly or indirectly, is an insult to our brave men and women who've been fighting these terrorists since 9/11.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this "transition support act" is that it would commit the United States to a leadership position in the restoration of Syria, and is very vague about what that looks like.

The language of "capacity building" contained in this act is an open-ended term that if logically followed, could eventually mean U.S. troops on the ground in Syria.

We "capacity built" in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Those who insist this language could never mean U.S. boots on the ground in Syria belong to the same Washington clique eager to support Hussein, Ghadafi and later, the Libyan rebels. Washington is not exempt from the law of unintended consequences.

Empowering Islamic extremists to achieve questionable short-term goals does not serve America's long-term security or interests. Nor does it serve the interests of nearly 2 million Christians in Syria who fear they could suffer the same fate as Iraqi Christians who were abused and expelled from that country as radical Islamic forces gained influence and power.

These Christians are natural allies of the United States, and if we're going to seriously discuss any American interests in Syria, the welfare of these Christians is more important than arming Islamic extremists.

History's primary lesson is that we must learn from the past. Although there are some well-intentioned reasons for wanting to intervene in Syria, there are far more well-documented reasons not to.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rand Paul.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT