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Scientific article


Disposable rebels: US military assistance to insurgents in the Syrian war

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During the Syrian War, the US and other Western countries trained, equipped and paid Syrian rebels to fight the government and, later, root out the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). When states use armed groups to attain foreign policy objectives, control is a key concern. The US sought to enforce such control over providers and recipients of lethal military assistance in the period from 2013–18. We investigate the parallel CIA and Department of Defence assistance programmes . We challenge theoretical assumptions related to the application of the principal-agent model to explain the dynamics of foreign assistance to rebels. We argue that, in the US strategy to control rebels, co-ordinating the providers and dividing the recipients of security assistance were essential conditions. Meanwhile, the delays in recruitment, the limitations on the number of soldiers trained, the short supply of weapons and the strict regulation of the actions carried out by the rebels all reduced the efficacy of the assistance. This way of instrumentalising security assistance helped the US and its Western allies to crush ISIL while avoiding a collapse in Damascus. However, this happened at the expense of rebel cohesion, autonomy, and legitimacy.


  • The Middle East and North Africa