A Cautionary Note on Increased Aid to Syrian Rebels

According to today’s Washington Post, the U.S. government is starting to supply food and medicine directly to selected Syrian rebel groups. Meanwhile, “Britain and other nations working in concert with the United States are expected to go further to help the rebel Free Syrian Army by providing battlefield equipment such as armored vehicles, night-vision devices or body armor.”

The point of all this assistance, of course, is to hasten the fall of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad. According to newly minted Secretary of State John Kerry, Assad is “out of time and must be out of power.”


Best I can tell, the logic behind this stepped-up support for the Syrian rebels Western governments “like” follows the logic of an assembly line. To increase desired outputs, increase relevant inputs.

But civil wars aren’t like factories. They’re more like ecosystems, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned from our attempts to manage ecosystems, it’s that they often have unintended consequences. Consider this 2009 story from the New York Times:

With its craggy green cliffs and mist-laden skies, Macquarie Island — halfway between Australia and Antarctica — looks like a nature lover’s Mecca. But the island has recently become a sobering illustration of what can happen when efforts to eliminate an invasive species end up causing unforeseen collateral damage.

In 1985, Australian scientists kicked off an ambitious plan: to kill off non-native cats that had been prowling the island’s slopes since the early 19th century. The program began out of apparent necessity — the cats were preying on native burrowing birds. Twenty-four years later, a team of scientists from the Australian Antarctic Division and the University of Tasmania reports that the cat removal unexpectedly wreaked havoc on the island ecosystem.

With the cats gone, the island’s rabbits (also non-native) began to breed out of control, ravaging native plants and sending ripple effects throughout the ecosystem. The findings were published in the Journal of Applied Ecology online in January.

“Our findings show that it’s important for scientists to study the whole ecosystem before doing eradication programs,” said Arko Lucieer, a University of Tasmania remote-sensing expert and a co-author of the paper. “There haven’t been a lot of programs that take the entire system into account. You need to go into scenario mode: ‘If we kill this animal, what other consequences are there going to be?’”

I don’t mean to suggest a moral equivalence between the human beings fighting and being murdered in Syria and the rabbits and cats and birds on Macquarie Island. I do mean to suggest that attempts to manipulate systems like these almost always underestimate the complexity of the problem. What scientist Barry Rice said to the New York Times for that 2009 article on the difficulty of managing invasive species applies just as well to attempts by outside powers to manufacture desired outcomes in civil wars:

When you’re doing a removal effort, you don’t know exactly what the outcome will be. You can’t just go in and make a single surgical strike. Every kind of management you do is going to cause some damage.

I hope Syria gets to a better place soon. Like Dan Trombly and Ahsan Butt, however, I am not confident that increased support for selected rebel factions will help that happen, and I am worried about the unintended consequences it will bring.

Leave a comment


  1. La Palisse

     /  February 28, 2013

    Either way, as assessed through this comment your views can’t possibly wrong.
    La Palisse

  2. Grant

     /  February 28, 2013

    It should be a rule of politics. For every action there will be at least three unexpected reactions and at least one of them will probably be unpleasant. The question is, could the unknown unpleasantness be worse than the known outcome of not interfering*.

    I don’t say that to urge intervention. I say it because it seems to me that the American public has a position of simply sitting back and letting the government intervene without the public ever taking the time to step back and ask itself ‘do we think this is enough in our interests to risk it?’

    *And considering this announcement I wonder if it’s generally agreed by whoever does these analyses for the president that the Sunni rebels will fail, or that the rebels will succeed and be bitter towards the U.S.

  1. Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment | Gabriel Geisler Mesevage

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