Atlantic Council
June 20, 2014
In his June 19 press remarks about the situation in Iraq, President Barack Obama was asked whether the expansion of Syria's war into Iraq courtesy of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had changed his mind about the urgency of providing meaningful military assistance to Syrian nationalists ready and willing to fight jihadists and the Bashar al-Assad regime alike.  Naturally the president challenged the premise of the question:  "And so we have consistently provided that opposition with support.  Oftentimes, the challenge is if you have former farmers or teachers or pharmacists who now are taking up opposition against a battle-hardened regime, with support from external actors that have a lot at stake, how quickly can you get them trained; how effective are you able to mobilize them."  It is not, therefore, that Mr. Obama has had, as President Lincoln said of General George McClellan, a terminal case of "the slows" when it comes to assisting those in need of assistance.  No, the problem resides with those in need of help.  Farmers, teachers, pharmacists: what is one to do with such rabble?

This is the second time the president has blamed nationalist opponents to the Assad regime for being unready to take advantage of aid that would otherwise, were it not for their defects, be lavished on them by the United States.  On May 29 he told National Public Radio, "When you talk about the moderate opposition, many of these people were farmers or dentists or maybe some radio reporters who didn't have a lot of experience fighting." 

This then is the canonical explanation for why the president has steadfastly refused, since the summer of 2012, to arm, train, and equip Syrian rebels at levels sufficient to make a difference on the ground: that which is to be armed, trained, and equipped is the worst raw material imaginable; to try to endow such an unschooled, unprepared cadre of recruits with significant assistance would be to pour water on the sand.  That is the president's story, and regrettably he's sticking with it.

Leave aside the historical precedent of American rabble - farmers, smithies, shopkeepers and the like - being elevated to decent degrees of military proficiency by arms and trainers from abroad.  Forget about Beaumarchais, von Stueben, Lafayette - yesterday's news, no doubt.  Fortunately King Louis XVI and his court did not regard American colonials as pathetically unready for real help.  But this is merely history; albeit American history.

The question that arises, however, is why President Obama fails to mention the tens of thousands of Syrian Army officers and soldiers who abandoned the Assad regime rather than participate in that regime's campaign of mass homicide.  Why is the totality of what the president calls "the moderate opposition" characterized by him as entirely civilian, and therefore inadequate, in nature?  And why does he not assume that a healthy percentage of the farmers, teachers, pharmacists, dentists, and radio reporters to whom he refers have had significant prior military training as conscripts in Syria?  Does he think that Syria has had an all-volunteer military force for the past fifty years?

The president and his strategic communications people should drop this alibi.  It is inaccurate, unworthy, and patronizing, if not insulting.  Yes, Syrians from all walks of life have rebelled against a regime that exploits their labor, assaults their dignity, and assigns to their lives and well-being a sub-human status.  Among those who have taken up arms there are, no doubt, some who have had to learn for the first time about the business end of an AK-47.  And even those in uniform who walked away from the Assad killing machine were not the recipients of world-class military training. Yet to imply that Syrians who have taken up arms to defend themselves are coming directly from the stable or the library to the battlefield is inaccurate.  It is also gratuitously damaging to President Obama in the eyes of Syrians.  One wonders, however, if he cares.

That which the United States has failed to do with allies and partners to facilitate the creation of a third force in Syria capable of beating ISIS and either forcing the regime to the negotiating table or driving it out of Syria has nothing whatsoever to do with the raw material to be armed, trained, and equipped.  President Obama has had his reasons - other reasons - for going slow: painfully slow.  Perhaps now that the ISIS threat has metastasized so virulently in Iraq there will be greater White House interest in doing something significant with respect to Syria: something aimed not only at ISIS, but at the regime whose blatant criminality has drawn ISIS to Syria and thereby increased the vulnerability of millions of Syrians and their neighbors.

The task facing the United States, its allies, and its partners goes beyond emergency arms for vetted rebel groups.  The challenge is to build a Syrian national army able to defend a genuine Syrian government in liberated Syria and fight in two directions.  The raw material is there in terms of patriotic Syrian officers and soldiers who did their duty by leaving the regime, and in terms of highly motivated civilians, many of whom have had prior military service.  Even the radio reporters among them can contribute to the liberation of Syria if given the tools to do the job.  And if acceptance of the president's alibi is the price to be paid for at long last doing what needs to be done about Syria, consider it accepted.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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