Two profiles of Syrian rebel commanders–one in the New York Times yesterday, the other in the Wall Street Journal today–capture the changing face of the conflict.
The Times article is on the death of a “pragmatic” rebel leader, killed in a recent government air strike: “The commander, Abdulkader al-Saleh, 33, was a recognized and accessible leader in a fragmented insurgency that has few. He managed to gather ragtag local militias into the Tawhid Brigades, for a time one of the most organized and effective rebel battle groups, and to bridge the gap between relatively secular army defectors and Islamist fighters.”
The Journal article focuses on one of the foreign jihadist fighters who have become increasingly prominent as the influence of homegrown “moderates” like Saleh have declined–Tarkhan Batirashvili, an ethnic Chechen who once served in the Georgian army and who has “recently emerged from obscurity to be the northern commander in Syria of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), an al Qaeda-connected coalition whose thousands of Arab and foreign fighters have overrun key Syrian military bases, staged public executions and muscled aside American-backed moderate rebel groups trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad.”
The fact that jihadist extremists are coming to the fore is utterly predictable. In fact, Saleh predicted it himself: “a Syrian insurgency with nowhere else to turn, he said nearly a year ago, would tilt toward foreign fighters and Al Qaeda.”
And why does the Syrian insurgency have nowhere else to turn? In large part because the U.S., the only country with commensurate resources, has refused to step into the vacuum and provide a counter-balance to the copious aid being provided to Bashar Assad’s odious regime by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Sure, President Obama has allowed the CIA to provide some arms and training, but not very much. He has refused to provide, in particular, the antitank weapons the rebels need. Nor has he been willing to use American airpower to ground Assad’s air force and to hit regime targets–as he did previously in Libya and as Bill Clinton did in Kosovo and Bosnia.
If the U.S. had not done more in those previous conflicts, undoubtedly jihadists would have gained more of a foothold in those Muslim lands. Now that the U.S. is doing so little in Syria, the jihadists are predictably ascendant on the rebel side while Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds Force are growing increasingly powerful on the government side.
This grim outcome was not inevitable–it is the direct result of American inaction.