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Assessing the Facts on the Ground in Syria

In an earlier post I wrote that there’s a real difference of opinion, including among conservatives, about whether an effective show of force against the Assad regime that would alter the balance of power would be worthwhile. I said this:

Some military analysts, like (retired) General Jack Keane, believe the more moderate and secular rebel forces (like the Free Syrian Army) are in fairly strong shape and, if given the training and arms they need, could emerge as a powerful force in a post-Assad Syria. Others, like Colonel Ralph Peters, believe the rebel forces that are strongest in Syria right now and most likely to emerge as dominant in a post-Assad Syria are al-Qaeda affiliates like Jabhat al-Nusra. I will admit it’s unclear to me–and I suspect fairly unclear to almost everyone else–what would happen if Assad left the scene. Which makes knowing what to do, and what to counsel, difficult.

With that in mind, I wanted to call attention to this op-ed by Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, and which was published in the Wall Street Journal. Ms. O’Bagy has made numerous trips to Syria over the last year and she’s spent hundreds of hours with Syrian opposition groups ranging from Free Syrian Army affiliates to the Ahrar al-Sham Brigade. She writes this:

The conventional wisdom holds that the extremist elements are completely mixed in with the more moderate rebel groups. This isn’t the case. Moderates and extremists wield control over distinct territory….  Contrary to many media accounts, the war in Syria is not being waged entirely, or even predominantly, by dangerous Islamists and al Qaeda die-hards. The jihadists pouring into Syria from countries like Iraq and Lebanon are not flocking to the front lines. Instead they are concentrating their efforts on consolidating control in the northern, rebel-held areas of the country… Moderate opposition forces—a collection of groups known as the Free Syrian Army—continue to lead the fight against the Syrian regime. While traveling with some of these Free Syrian Army battalions, I’ve watched them defend Alawi and Christian villages from government forces and extremist groups. They’ve demonstrated a willingness to submit to civilian authority, working closely with local administrative councils. And they have struggled to ensure that their fight against Assad will pave the way for a flourishing civil society.

Ms. O’Bagy goes on to add, “a punitive measure undertaken just to send a message would likely produce more harm than good.” She argues that the ultimate goal should be destroying Assad’s military capability while simultaneously empowering the moderate opposition with robust support, in order to change the balance of power in Syria. Otherwise the conflict will engulf the entire region.

I haven’t shifted in my view that Syria, thanks in part (but not in whole) to President Obama’s incompetence, is a very complicated challenge. But this much I do know: Thinking through what policy to pursue always has to begin with an honest assessment of the facts on the ground. And it seems to me that Elizabeth O’Bagy’s op-ed is a very good place to start.


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