What Truman Knew

A Washington Post article suggests that the administration may have finally decided to “lead from front” in Syria.  An influx of heavy weapons from ‘abroad’ is reportedly tipping the balance against Assad. The WaPo article strongly hints that the source of the weapons — through cutouts of course — is ultimately Washington.


The officials declined to identify the source of the newly provided weapons, but they noted that the countries most closely involved in supporting the rebels’ campaign to oust Assad have grown increasingly alarmed at the soaring influence of Islamists over the fragmented rebel movement. They include the United States and its major European allies, along with Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar …

“The idea was to get heavier stuff, intensify supply and make sure it goes to the good guys,” said an Arab official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operation. “If you want to weaken al-Nusra, you do it not by withholding [weapons] but by boosting the other groups.”

Of course, mentioning “Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar” in the same article as making sure weapons go “to the good guys” is bound to make Israel nervous. And indeed the Jerusalem Post says the Israelis are watching warily to see what eventually happens to the “heavy weapons”. Washington is arming men not far from their borders. Where will those weapons go when Assad is gone?

“On the one hand, there is a great deal of pressure on the Western world to bolster arms to moderate – what we call ‘friendly’ – rebel groups so that they are on a level playing field with the groups that might be getting support from Islamist movements,” this official told McClatchy.

“On the other hand, once you send a weapon somewhere, you can’t control where it goes. The fear is that the same gun used to shoot a Syrian soldier will one day be used to shoot an Israeli soldier.”


The best way to control the weapons after Assad falls is to determine who gets hired into the new army or national militia. This is a time tested method. The day after Assad shuffles off his mortal coil or decamps for foreign exile all the miltiamen and rebels will be faced with the same darned question: what now.  They will be looking for a job.

The problem of “reintegrating” (i.e. hiring the rebel force and putting it under discipline) was successfully performed in Iraq. Though we have forgotten it, it was also successfully performed in postwar Germany and Japan.  Iraq is more recent.  News articles from 2008 described how the Iraqi government hired hundreds of thousands of and absorbed many of them into the police and army. Iraq has its problems, but it seems nowhere near as bad as Libya.

In Libya things were supposed to magically sort themselves out.  NPR wrote shortly before the attack on the US consolate in Benghazi, that the window in which to unwind the militias was closing or was already shut:

Less than a year ago, victorious militiamen swarmed the streets of Libya’s major cities basking in their role as national liberators. Today, many of those same men present a challenge to the country’s incoming rulers, who face the prospect of long-term instability if they fail to rein in armed irregulars.

The question of how to safely unwind an insurgency like the one in Libya is nothing new — it’s a thorny problem that goes back centuries. In modern times, the process known as “disarmament, demobilization and reintegration,” or DDR, has had as many failures as successes in places such as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Peru and Colombia.

“It’s a very, very difficult road,” says Aram Nerguizian, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He says for militia members, there are typically strong group ties that are reinforced by the shared experience of combat, as well as ideology, fear of reprisals from the government or rival groups, and poor prospects for civilian employment that all militate against disbanding. And in Libya and elsewhere, time is of the essence.

“It’s very clear that the Libyans have only a short window in terms of trying to make this happen,” Nerguizian says.

“The longer you don’t take necessary action to conduct meaningful arms control and reintegration and demobilization, the more difficult it becomes in the future, because you establish an environment where the militias grow more entrenched, and then you cannot act,” he says, pointing to Lebanon, where 15 years of insurgency ended suddenly, but militias have never been extinguished.


But they were never unwound. The weapons supplied to rebels in Libya to topple Khadaffy eventually found their way to Mali and maybe some were even used to attack the US consulate. But the methods of controlling them, as the NPR article noted, are well established and time tested. It involves a process of re-hiring the old fighters, after an adequate process of de-Nazification or de-Baathization or some similar process, and reintegrating them into the successor state.

The Atlantic Wire recalled the birth of the Bundeswehr.

In the beginning, virtually everybody who became a member of the new Bundeswehr had once been an officer in the old Wehrmacht. One had to make sure that applicants stood on democratic ground and had no personal war crime history.

In fact Hasso von Manteuffel, who was by then a politician, chose the name ‘Bundeswehr’ for the new service. You know, the Hasso von Manteuffel who helped spearhead Operation Barbarossa? That Hasso. Thus the men were mostly the same. The founders of the new defense force however, took special pains to ensure that the uniforms looked different.

“We did not want it to look like the old Wehrmacht, nor did we want to look like the Allied occupation armies. On one occasion in Paris, I was called to a high-ranking officer of the U.S. Army. He said: ‘I will not interfere with your decision about what German uniforms look like. This is a national matter. But keep in mind what impression it will make when German soldiers are marching along the Champs-Elysées.'”


The problem of ensuring that the successor state in Syria is friendly to the United States does not require a new and undiscovered technology yet to be identified by the Obama administration. The methods were well known to Truman. They were well known even to George Bush who was criticized as stupid for implementing them. They should have been well known to Obama in Libya, and again in Afghanistan, but for some reason the secrets of the ancients have escaped him. Perhaps his recent troubles in Syria have reminded him of them.

The administration’s reluctance to use the old Truman method is understandable.  Any successful “disarmament, demobilization and reintegration” requires a period of occupation and political consolidation. Japan and Germany were occupied for 10 years. There are still US forces in Korea, Japan and Germany. Iraq, though not occupied for that duration, was nevertheless occupied in a manner that Obama swore never to repeat. And in fact he decamped from there as soon as he could. Perhaps that haste was wise, perhaps not.

However, if the administration has any serious plans for DDR’ing Syria and making sure the “heavy weapons” sent to the rebels do not wind up in al-Qaeda’s hands, they will have to do exactly that: occupy Syria or control it in some fashion after Assad falls. Otherwise they will wind up with another Libya.


Therefore the implied headline behind the Washington Post announcement that heavy weapons are being sent to Syrian rebels should be “the Obama administration intends to occupy Syria after Assad falls”.  But if Obama has no intention of doing this, then I confidently predict the headline in 2015 will be “US embassy in Syria unexpectedly burned by a mob enraged at an anti-Islamist video produced in Los Angeles. Producer is in custody.”

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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