Syria: Forget About Arming the Opposition?

My friend and former governmental colleague Robert Ford was recently depicted in a newspaper article as having done a U-turn on the question of arming Syrian nationalists currently resisting both the Assad regime and the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). Ambassador Ford will, I suspect, take pen to paper soon to present a more nuanced account of his actual concerns, which center on unity of command and a total break between beleaguered nationalist fighters inside Syria and the Nusra Front.

In terms of actual policy options, however, the choice for the United States is not to arm or not: Syrian nationalists, and not the Assad regime, are the ones actually fighting ISIL; they, and no one else, will be the focus of the administration’s train-and-equip program.

The real policy choice is as it has been for nearly three years: Either provide the resources needed to make a real difference on the ground and reverse the magnetic flow of personnel to well-resourced extremists; or continue to provision nationalists with empty gestures and useless verbiage, thereby avoiding genuine operational commitment (even as ISIL metastasizes) while retaining the ability to say something is being done—and blame Syrians for policy failures made in Washington, the region, and in other Western capitals.

Had the Obama administration decided in the summer of 2012 that real support for mainstream Syrian rebels facing a criminal regime and a growing al-Qaeda presence was worth providing, it is hard to imagine that, in early 2015, the region and the world would be facing the possibility and the consequences of Syria divided between two mass murdering entities. Instead, the administration fought the looming threat with talking points. It did so while Iran and Russia enabled a humanitarian abomination, while private Gulf donors sent sacks of money to al-Qaeda terrorists and anti-Assad regional powers competed to divide and dominate the Syrian nationalist opposition, armed and unarmed. Washington was consciously AWOL.

So now, everyone, from befuddled administration officials to active, unapologetic enablers of the Assad regime, professes to be shocked by nationalist organizational dysfunction and a distasteful tendency of some inside Syria to try to survive through tactical alliances with unsavory organizations. What is the matter with these opposition people, anyway? Why can’t they get their act together? Can it possibly be our fault that some of the people we chose to support without the benefit of mature Syrian input turned out to be losers and warlords? Perish the thought.

The policy chickens came home to roost in June 2014, when ISIL—facilitated by the regime’s sectarian survival strategy and ineffectively opposed (though opposed nonetheless) by nationalist Syrian rebels—erupted out of secure bases in Syria and flowed nearly unimpeded through much of Iraq. That which had already happened to Syria—more than 200,000 dead, 3.5 million refugees, 7 million internally displaced, tens of thousands rotting and starving in regime prisons—was tolerable to an administration hoping that a nuclear agreement with Iran would be the key to peace in Syria and the region. But ISIL, surging through Iraq, required immediate action.

At first, President Barack Obama reacted defensively, claiming that arming nationalists was a fantasy. But the truth settled in quickly: these nationalists—dismissed by the president as farmers and pharmacists—would be the ground forces willing to confront ISIL in Syria. They had no choice: they were being assaulted by ISIL and the regime in tandem. Iran—content to keep its puppet ensconced in western Syria where he could be of use to Hezbollah in Lebanon—would not be wasting foreign militiamen from Lebanon and Iraq on ISIL in eastern Syria. The Syrian army was exhausted, with the Alawite community bearing the terrible brunt of one family’s desire to retain power at any cost. Hence, the administration’s decision to train and equip a handful of armed nationalists over a three-year period: enough to be able to claim that something was, at last, being done.

Blaming the weak for the actions and inactions of the strong is hardly unheard of. Syrians coming out of a more than forty-year induced political coma were going to need help: not just words about Assad stepping aside, warnings about red lines, and speeches about legitimate representative of the Syrian people; and not just Dutch Uncle advice from US officials content to leave the nationalist opposition in the clutches of competing regional powers. Yet time has been wasted. What is to be done?

  1. Get the State Department’s Team Syria out of Foggy Bottom and into the field: mainly to Istanbul and Gaziantep. The Syrian National Coalition and the Syrian Interim Government need steady, hands-on advice and assistance—not the occasional visiting volunteer firefighter.
  2. Take charge diplomatically of coordinating the financing and arming of Syrian nationalist political and military structures. Designating an organization (in December 2012) as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and then disappearing after the speech for the next two-plus years is not a sound way to do business. Washington spearheaded the recognition. It should have taken charge. It still should. Just as a chronic lack of resources has pulled Syrian rebels out of mainstream units, an infusion of substantial assistance can pull them back.
  3. Consult urgently with regional allies and friends to configure now, from regional resources, a ground combat component capable of defeating ISIL in Syria quickly. A train and equip effort aimed at producing 15,000 Syrian personnel over three years seems to lack the requisite urgency and heft: ISIL in Syria is a magnet for foreign recruits and a here-and-now threat to the region. Chasing armed criminals with F-16s and 18s is not the way to win. Waiting three years to bring this murderous rabble to heel is unthinkable.
  4. Impose and enforce an air exclusion zone in northwestern Syria, including Aleppo. The fight against ISIL is not just in Raqqa and points east. The Assad regime has nothing to contribute to this fight: it is the essence of the problem. Keeping its aircraft out of the skies is essential to de-confliction. It would also save thousands of Syrian lives by mitigating the effects of regime aerial terror tactics.
  5. As ISIL is being cleared from central and eastern Syria, encourage the Istanbul-Gaziantep opposition to relocate to Syria and establish a government, one that the United States and its allies would recognize. This could set the stage for real negotiations and provide an exit for Syrian officers and officials serving honorably, but now faced with the terrible choice of enabling a rapacious clan or living as refugees.
  6. Trade in train-and-equip for building a Syrian National Stabilization Force: an all-Syria armed force capable of bringing law and order to the entire country.

Ideally, it would never have to march on Damascus; ideally, the six steps described here would dispose responsible Syrians now answering to the Assads to dismiss the clan and negotiate a unity government merging the ministries and agencies of both governing entities. A team of trusted Syrian interlocutors should be assembled to help with vetting: there is no need for Americans to fly blind in this regard.

All of this would entail a heavy diplomatic lift. None of it is risk-free. Ambassador Ford has highlighted areas where the Syrian nationalist opposition must indeed focus serious effort. Yet if Americans want the nationalist Syrian opposition – the people who seek (as most Syrians do) decent, inclusive, non-sectarian, and honest governance – to help overcome ISIL and ultimately displace the clan dismissed by President Barack Obama in August 2011, then an effort beyond talking points must be mounted.

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

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Image: A view seen through the scope of a weapon belonging to a sniper and rebel fighter shows a building where forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad are stationed, as seen from a rebel-controlled area in the northwestern Homs district of Al Waer February 18, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)