On November 29, 1981, an ordinary day in the bustling Damascus neighborhood of Azbakiyah, droves of Syrian pedestrians on Baghdad Street moved in and out of their apartments and offices. Some were children visiting their friends. Many were high-ranking intelligence functionaries working to foil subversive plots against the state.
It was a tense time. The Muslim Brotherhood was at war with the Syrian government and had been detonating car bombs all over Damascus. In August, Brotherhood agents leveled an attack near the Prime Minister’s office and leveled another one near a government agency in September. Indoctrinated in Islamist dogma and trained at camps in the region, these terrorist bandits were slick, ruthless, and determined to wreak havoc. At the time, their jihad was against the non-believers of Hafez Al-Assad’s Ba’ath Party and its military cronies spread throughout the country.
Suddenly, all at once, the city shook, and a bomb left Baghdad Street in bloody shambles. With this attack, Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood murdered and injured hundreds of civilians, causing more casualties than ever before. If there was any reason left for the world to ignore this appalling threat to civilized society, it was now gone.
But the United States remained unconcerned. Hardly any of us knew where the Muslim Brothers were, let alone who they were serving and who was financing their jihad. American news outlets provided scant coverage of the attacks, and our national security apparatus said little about it in public.
American indifference to Islamist terror, even if not justifiable, would have been more understandable had it not been for the fact that, in very important ways, our government bolstered Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s and 1980s. Although it is not clear whether the US government directly funded Syrian terrorists, it certainly handed off weapons and billions of dollars to Jordan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to pursue their agendas through various proxies, including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood. At the end of the Cold War, as one CIA analyst put it, we were “playing with fire,” and our blasé government knew it, even if our people did not.
Today, as we again consider sending weapons to “vetted” Syrian rebels in the current civil war, our costly recent involvements in the Mideast should remind us that it is risky to cast our lot with foreign factions intent on using our aid for murder and warfare. Because our patron states in the region have themselves thrown around funds recklessly for a long time, it will be necessary not only to withhold aid from violent insurgencies but also to take a more critical look at the aid that we so readily wire into other states’ bank accounts.
Although the tale of Islamism is over a hundred years old, this chapter began when Muslim Brotherhood agents fled to Syria in the 1950s after Egypt’s Nasser amped up his attacks on the Brotherhood. As the largely secular Syrian Ba’ath assumed power the following decade, the Brothers were forced to fight for the heart of their new home, declaring outright war against the Syrian government during the Arabs’ 1967 war with Israel.
Meanwhile, in Jordan, the Muslim Brothers were fending off similar threats from anti-Islamist nationalists and Palestinians. Though it seemed that Syria would intervene on the Palestinians’ behalf during their 1970 uprising against the Jordanian monarchy, Assad backed down when Israel “threatened action if the Syrian army moved to help the PLO.” Still, Jordan and Israel were concerned about Syrian-endorsed nationalism and socialism and thus supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s reinvigorated jihad against Assad in the mid-1970s.
To complicate matters even further, the Lebanese Civil War erupted in 1975 and eventually provoked the involvement of both Israel and Syria. Still pitted against the PLO, Israel funded the predominantly Christian Free Lebanon Forces and Lebanese Front, both of which supported the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, one of Israel’s main allies in the Free Lebanon Forces, Sa’d Haddad, operated multiple Muslim Brotherhood training camps, including some in northern Jordan with the go-ahead of King Hussein.
Pause for a moment. Suppose that, after a long day’s work in the 1970s or 1980s, you returned home to find King Hussein pulled up in a limousine to ask you to support his latest onslaught against the Syrian government and the PLO. Before you were able to respond, Israel’s Menachem Begin popped in asking for a big donation as well. The two leaders’ countries were technically enemies, yes, but they both needed your help in training a group of useful Islamist rebels. Right as you tried to answer again, King Khalid of Saudi Arabia came by and asked to buy weapons from you for the same purpose. They all admitted that they would kill innocent people with your aid but that it was ultimately “for a good cause.” What would you have said?
Sadly, it doesn’t even matter. In real life, you effectively said yes to all of them. Islamist “terrorist acts” at the time were widespread, “centered around urban centers such as Damascus, Hamah, Homs, and the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartus.” The US was implicated in this violence by its financial support for Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and, by extension, the Free Lebanon Forces and the Lebanese Front.
Recently, we have again been asked to fund a bunch of fighters amidst Syrian mayhem—this time, by taking money directly from our pockets and putting it into theirs. As crucial as it is for the international community to support humanitarian aid to Syria’s civilians being slaughtered by the brutal Assad on one side and Islamists on the other, it is risky for us to throw any more weaponry and military support into the volatile madness unfolding in the country.
The lesson from next door in Iraq– where ISIS is on a murderous rampage with stolen weapons that the US originally gave to Iraq’s Shi’ite government– is that our arms transfers can come back to haunt us and may be redirected by almost anybody to pursue a nefarious agenda. Boasting a recent history of such counterproductive results, the “more weapons” strategy deserves much greater scrutiny and, in the case of Syria, should probably be discarded entirely.