I have previously suggested that the case for military intervention in Syria depends in large part on the nature of the rebels fighting to overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad. If the rebels are primarily radical Islamists who would establish a government as oppressive and anti-American as Assad’s, it would be both foolish and immoral to launch an intervention that ends up strengthening their position. Assad’s use of chemical weapons is a great evil. But it makes no sense to combat it by indirectly supporting an equal or greater evil.
The nature of the rebels should concern even those Americans who may be indifferent to the effect of intervention on Syria and care only about US strategic interests, narrowly defined. To put it mildly, radical Islamists tend to be strongly anti-American, and helping them seize power is unlikely to benefit the United States. If, as a result, al Qaeda-aligned elements among the rebels capture some of Assad’s chemical weapons, the consequences for the US might be dire indeed. And a “shot across the bow” attack that avoids helping the rebels because it doesn’t have much effect on Assad’s forces would be simply useless.
Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress that most of the Syrian rebels are moderates, and only 15-25% are radical Islamist extremists. Unfortunately, Kerry’s optimistic view is contradicted by independent experts (see here and here), and by US and allied intelligence assessments. No one doubts that there are Syrians opposed to Assad who want to replace his regime with a liberal democracy, or at least a less oppressive government than the status quo. The key question is whether such people will come to power if the rebels prevail, or whether the radical Islamists would dominate instead.
I am far from an expert on Syria. For me, as for most westerners, this is an issue on which we must to a large extent defer to the opinions of those who know more than we do. But in choosing who to defer to, it strikes me that intelligence agencies and outside experts are, on the whole, more credible than the administration, which so far has cited little in the way of evidence to justify its optimistic view.
Obama and Kerry have only limited expertise on Syria. In addition, the president and his advisers have a strong incentive to dismiss evidence that, if taken seriously, leads to the conclusion that he should take the embarrassing step of backing down from the “red line” he drew, promising military retaliation for the use of chemical weapons by the regime. As far as I can tell, outside experts and intelligence specialists don’t have a similarly serious conflict of interest. It’s also worth noting that most of Syria’s Christians and other religious minorities seem to be supporting Assad - presumably because they fear that a rebel victory would result in the establishment of a radical Islamist regime that oppresses those who are not Sunni Muslims. Syria’s Christians might be overly pessimistic about the rebels. But they at least have a strong incentive to correctly assess the situation, since for them it is almost literally a matter of life and death.
None of this definitively proves that Kerry and the president are wrong about the rebels. But it should affect our assessment of the balance of probabilities on who is right about this crucial issue.