Commentary Magazine


Topic: Free Syrian Army

Abandoning the Free Syrian Army

So how’s the administration campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS going? Not so well in spite of some limited success that Iraqi forces have had in pushing ISIS back in a few spots such as Beiji. The core problem remains the outreach, or lack thereof, to Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria. On that score the news isn’t good.

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So how’s the administration campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS going? Not so well in spite of some limited success that Iraqi forces have had in pushing ISIS back in a few spots such as Beiji. The core problem remains the outreach, or lack thereof, to Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria. On that score the news isn’t good.

The New York Times has a report on how the police force in Ninevah Province in northern Iraq is not receiving support from the central government in Baghdad or from the U.S. This is a mostly Sunni force in an area where ISIS has been strong–Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city which fell to ISIS in June, is located in Ninevah. Retaking, and crucially holding Mosul after retaking it, will require the work of local security forces, but they complain that they are not getting arms or equipment. “We are in a camp like refugees, without work or salaries,” the Times quotes one Iraqi SWAT team member wearing a “U.S. Army” T-shirt saying. “ISIS is our target, but what are we supposed to fight it with?”

Some of these officers fondly remember the days when they did raids alongside American forces, but that is ancient history by now. Today the Obama administration refuses to channel aid directly to Sunnis in either Anbar or Ninevah Province because it insists on working exclusively through the central government–and never mind that the central government is so penetrated by Iranian influence that the minister of interior, who is in charge of the police, is a member of the Badr Corps, an Iranian-sponsored militia that is inveterately hostile to Sunnis.

This is a self-defeating policy and yet one in which the Obama administration persists, pretending that sending aid to Sunnis directly would undermine Iraqi sovereignty. In truth the Baghdad government already controls considerably less than half the country and it will never regain any more control unless it can mobilize Sunnis to fight ISIS. The U.S. can be a key player in mobilizing Sunnis, as it was in 2007-2008, but only if it is willing to reach out to them directly.

The situation is even worse in Syria. Josh Rogin of Bloomberg reports that Congress has not passed a $300 million appropriation to fund the Free Syrian Army. The money was apparently held up in the House Intelligence Committee because lawmakers are concerned that the Free Syrian Army is not an effective fighting force.

Rogin writes that “Congress’s disenchantment with the Syrian rebels is shared by many officials inside the administration, following the rebels’ losses to Assad, IS and the al-Nusra Front in northern Syrian cities such as Idlib. There is particular frustration that these setbacks resulted in some advanced American weaponry falling into extremist hands. Reflecting that dissatisfaction, the Obama administration has taken a series of steps in recent weeks to distance the U.S. from the moderate rebels in the north, by cutting off their weapons flow and refusing to allow them to meet with U.S. military officials, right at the time they are struggling to survive in and around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.”

Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more that the U.S. refuses to fund the Free Syrian Army, the weaker it will get–and the more its weakness will be used as an excuse not to support it. This dynamic has been plain for years and it continues. And yet despite our neglect, the Free Syrian Army is still battling, as Rogin notes, to hold onto Aleppo. The U.S. has no choice but to help if we are going to support any alternative in Syria to Sunni jihadists (Al Nusra Front, ISIS) and Shiite jihadists (Hezbollah, Quds Force). But it increasingly looks as if the Obama administration is counting on Bashar Assad–who has murdered some 200,000 of his own people–to fight ISIS.

There is a connecting thread between Syria and Iraq: in both places the Obama administration is tacitly acquiescing to Iranian domination. That is a grave mistake for a whole host of reasons, not the least of them being that the more prominent that Iran appears to be in the anti-ISIS coalition, the more that Sunnis afraid of Shiite domination will flock to ISIS and the Nusra Front for protection.

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On Syria, Everyone’s Waiting for Obama

The Obama administration’s “lead from behind” foreign policy is having the same impact in Syria this year as in Libya last year: It is providing an opening for France to usurp the traditional American role as the leading outside power in the Middle East. While the bodies pile up in Syria, President Obama limits his support to the Syrian opposition to the rhetorical realm–backed up by the dispatch of a couple dozen computers.

Meanwhile French President Francois Hollande calls for the Syrian opposition to form a government as soon as possible and vows to recognize it as soon as it is created. He also speaks of creating buffer zones in Syrian territory and enforcing at least a partial no-fly zone–something that the Free Syrian Army has now called for. All of this is desperately needed to stop Bashar Assad’s ruthless killing machine, which is being aided by a substantial contingent of Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

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The Obama administration’s “lead from behind” foreign policy is having the same impact in Syria this year as in Libya last year: It is providing an opening for France to usurp the traditional American role as the leading outside power in the Middle East. While the bodies pile up in Syria, President Obama limits his support to the Syrian opposition to the rhetorical realm–backed up by the dispatch of a couple dozen computers.

Meanwhile French President Francois Hollande calls for the Syrian opposition to form a government as soon as possible and vows to recognize it as soon as it is created. He also speaks of creating buffer zones in Syrian territory and enforcing at least a partial no-fly zone–something that the Free Syrian Army has now called for. All of this is desperately needed to stop Bashar Assad’s ruthless killing machine, which is being aided by a substantial contingent of Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Yet, just as in Libya, the Europeans are unable to act effectively without Washington’s help. They lack aerial refuelers, smart munitions, drones, and other advanced intelligence and surveillance assets that are needed to take down Syria’s air defenses and to enforce a no-fly zone at scant risk to the aircraft involved. Thus as long as the U.S. refuses to act, they will be hard-pressed to do so.

Clearly the Europeans want to act to end the terrible Syrian civil war. Turkey also appears to be willing to do more–it is said to be on the verge of asking the UN Security Council to set up a safe zone for refugees inside Syria. But they are all waiting for President Obama to make a decision–something that is unlikely to happen before our presidential election. As the Washington Post points out in an editorial today, Obama has said that that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.” Yet Obama is willing to do nothing substantive to protect this supposed core interest.

The continuing massacres are the price that Syrians (and Lebanese, who are increasingly being drawn into the fray) pay for an abdication of American leadership–the same price paid by Bosnians in the early 1990s before Bill Clinton finally decided to get involved.

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Beware Gulf States’ Role in Syria

Every day seems to bring fresh, horrific revelations of atrocities in Syria, which Amnesty International says amount to crimes against humanity. The latest news concerns the Sunni village of Al Heffa in the northwest, where UN monitors found “fiery devastation, the smell of death, vacated homes, looted stores and vestiges of heavy weapons.”

The Obama administration remains committed, it appears, to staying on the sidelines of this growing crisis, but it is finding it hard to ignore entirely the cause of the rebels. Thus, the Wall Street Journal reports, U.S. diplomats and intelligence operatives have increased contacts with the opposition. But rather than provide arms directly to the Free Syrian Army, the U.S. representatives are content to let Gulf states do the dirty work. As the Journal notes, the “U.S. in many ways is acting in Syria through proxies, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.”

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Every day seems to bring fresh, horrific revelations of atrocities in Syria, which Amnesty International says amount to crimes against humanity. The latest news concerns the Sunni village of Al Heffa in the northwest, where UN monitors found “fiery devastation, the smell of death, vacated homes, looted stores and vestiges of heavy weapons.”

The Obama administration remains committed, it appears, to staying on the sidelines of this growing crisis, but it is finding it hard to ignore entirely the cause of the rebels. Thus, the Wall Street Journal reports, U.S. diplomats and intelligence operatives have increased contacts with the opposition. But rather than provide arms directly to the Free Syrian Army, the U.S. representatives are content to let Gulf states do the dirty work. As the Journal notes, the “U.S. in many ways is acting in Syria through proxies, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.”

On the surface this may appear to be “smart power” in action: Why should the U.S. take the lead if allies are willing to do it? But actually this is a fundamentally dumb and dangerous policy which risks repeating the same mistake the U.S. made in the 1980s when we subcontracted the arming of the Afghan mujahideen to the Pakistanis and Saudis. Who did these fundamentalist-dominated states choose to support? Not surprisingly, the bulk of their support went to brutal Afghan fundamentalists such as Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyr–closely connected to an obscure Saudi financer named Osama bin Laden–rather than to more moderate and pro-Western figures such as Ahmad Shah Massoud. We are now paying the price for building up Haqqani, Hekmatyr, et. al: They have gone from fighting the Red Army to fighting NATO forces and their allies in Afghanistan.

For this reason, I am considerably alarmed by news of the growing Saudi, Emirati and Qatari role in Syria. These are not the countries we want determining the future of Syria. Yet the longer we stand on the sidelines, the more their role will grow. Heaven help us if their proxies come to power in Syria as they eventually did in Afghanistan.

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A “Plan B” on Syria Urgently Needed

It’s good to hear the Obama administration may be searching for a Plan B on Syria. One is certainly needed—and urgently. Plan A was the UN-brokered cease fire which, as no less an authority than UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon notes, is not being implemented by the Assad regime. Indeed, there are numerous reports of regime assaults continuing on opposition bastions while the rebels have little equipment with which to defend themselves.

Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman just got back from Turkey where they meet with Syrian rebel leaders. “The most stunning, unsettling conclusion I drew from the leaders of the Free Syrian Army was that they have essentially got no help from anyone. They are literally running out of ammunition while Assad’s forces are being resupplied by Iran and Russia,” Lieberman told a reporter afterwards.

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It’s good to hear the Obama administration may be searching for a Plan B on Syria. One is certainly needed—and urgently. Plan A was the UN-brokered cease fire which, as no less an authority than UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon notes, is not being implemented by the Assad regime. Indeed, there are numerous reports of regime assaults continuing on opposition bastions while the rebels have little equipment with which to defend themselves.

Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman just got back from Turkey where they meet with Syrian rebel leaders. “The most stunning, unsettling conclusion I drew from the leaders of the Free Syrian Army was that they have essentially got no help from anyone. They are literally running out of ammunition while Assad’s forces are being resupplied by Iran and Russia,” Lieberman told a reporter afterwards.

That being the case, what a Plan B might be answers itself: simply provide more aid to the Syrian rebels and also help Turkey to set up safe zones inside Syria where refugees can come to escape annihilation. Those options, which could be combined (but don’t have to be) with air strikes on Syrian regime targets, are hardly new, but the case for them is becoming more compelling as it becomes clear there is no real alternative–unless we are simply willing to sit back and watch a close Iranian ally maintain his bloody rule in such a vital state.

 

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Time May Be Running Out in Syria

The Washington Post reports:

Syrian rebels battling the regime led by President Bashar al-Assad are running out of ammunition as black market supplies dry up, neighboring countries tighten their borders and international promises of help fail to materialize, according to rebel commanders and defected soldiers who have crossed into this Turkish border town in recent days in a quest for money to buy arms.

They describe what appear to be desperate conditions for the already lightly armed and loosely organized rebel force, made up of defected soldiers and civilians who in recent months have banded together in the name of the Free Syrian Army, transforming what had been an overwhelmingly peaceful uprising into an armed revolt.

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The Washington Post reports:

Syrian rebels battling the regime led by President Bashar al-Assad are running out of ammunition as black market supplies dry up, neighboring countries tighten their borders and international promises of help fail to materialize, according to rebel commanders and defected soldiers who have crossed into this Turkish border town in recent days in a quest for money to buy arms.

They describe what appear to be desperate conditions for the already lightly armed and loosely organized rebel force, made up of defected soldiers and civilians who in recent months have banded together in the name of the Free Syrian Army, transforming what had been an overwhelmingly peaceful uprising into an armed revolt.

This news, if true, is a tragedy and a disgrace. The Free Syrian Army is, at this point, the best chance to force Basher Assad and his criminal regime from power–if only by putting enough pressure on him to lead to a negotiated transition. Yet the Syrian army is on the offensive and, having taken Homs with great brutality, now has the rebels on the run–and the rebels can’t even find enough bullets with which to defend themselves.

It did not have to be this way. This is a direct result of the Obama administration’s failure to engage actively in favor of a revolt that could tip the balance of power in the Levant in favor of the West and against Iran and its allies. All sorts of arguments have been made as to why we should not arm the rebels. All need to be taken account, but none is particularly persuasive in light of the likely fact that, unless we do more to arm the rebels, Assad will remain in power and will remain more dependent than ever on Iranian support. This would be both a humanitarian and a strategic tragedy, hurting not only the people of Syria but American interests in the region. It is still not too late for the administration to act in concert with our allies. But time may be running out.

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