Early on in the Syrian civil war, the U.S. lent its support to rebel groups fighting Islamic State by giving them arms, funds, and military training. While the efforts were likely hamstrung by the Obama administration’s unwillingness to annoy Iran, to Aaron Eitan Meyer the very premise that allies can be bought with so-called “train-and-equip” programs is flawed. He points instead to the example of Orde Wingate, the British officer who led efforts to suppress the Arab revolt in Mandatory Palestine, trained the Haganah in counterinsurgency warfare, and directed campaigns in Ethiopia and Burma during World War II:
The dominant theory [in Wingate’s time]—which has, disturbingly, persisted into present thinking—was that local forces could be induced to fight by offering them arms and materiel, which is to say the methods by which the British supported the Hashemite anti-Ottoman Arab revolt during World War I. To say that Wingate was opposed to [this] model (which came to be largely associated with T.E. Lawrence, or “Lawrence of Arabia”) is a severe understatement. . . .
What then was Wingate’s method? [T]o invite the assistance of local chieftains by demonstrating the commitment of his own forces first.
Prior to departing Sudan, [where he led Ethiopian forces to victory over the Italians], Wingate wrote a memorandum in which he explained that the local fighter “must see us first, not fighting by his side, but in front of him. He must realize not only that we are brave soldiers but devoted to the cause of liberty. Cease trying to stimulate revolt from without; . . . let’s do something ourselves.” At the risk of extreme oversimplification, Wingate’s method relied not on transient loyalty bought with weapons but on demonstrably committing one’s own forces to a given struggle, and thereafter permitting local forces to play a part of their own accord.
In our cost-conscious world, we are ever more steered toward offering armaments from the shadows and loud proclamations in public, and then [expressing concern] that we must be careful in providing assistance lest our present allies later turn on us. . . . The U.S. must begin by asserting that the cause for which others fight, whether it be in Syria, Kurdistan, or any of the regions within Iran where people are struggling against a tyrannical regime, is its own. Once committed, Washington will need to follow through, but with the knowledge that the correct calculus lies in both thwarting the regional ambitions of hostile state actors and in supporting fundamental human rights sought by those who could—and should—be its natural allies.