The Obama administration on June 26 announced it would seek from Congress $500 million “to train and equip appropriately vetted elements of the moderate Syrian armed opposition.” Does this announcement herald a long (two year) overdue alignment of US policy to the reality of what is happening to Syria? Or is it another link in a long chain of empty policy gestures? The answer depends entirely on performance. Will Congress appropriate the requested amount expeditiously so that it will be available to the US Department of Defense at the start of the new fiscal year on October 1? Is the administration prepared now to consult with Congress based on a strategy it has developed for employing the funds in ways that would create positive facts on the ground? Has the Joint Staff done the requisite homework and produced an implementable plan? Is there a sense of operational urgency? Or was the announcement driven by the need to be seen as doing something about the latest catastrophic spillover from Syria onto a neighboring country: this time Iraq, and this time involving a terror organization of transnational significance? Performance alone—or lack thereof—will tell the tale.
Nearly two years ago, President Barack Obama considered and rejected a recommendation to arm, equip, and train vetted Syrian rebels at a scale sufficient to make a difference in Syria. The view here is that the rejection was a profound error that has had seriously negative repercussions for US allies and friends in the region, to say nothing of 23 million Syrians. But President Obama, as is his right, took a different view from that offered by his key national security subordinates. He has been understandably skeptical about the ability of the United States to affect the Syrian crisis decisively and has (along with his defenders) caricatured the arguments of policy critics. The president has focused on humanitarian assistance, chemical weapons removal, and the now expired hope that a Geneva peace conference would persuade an increasingly confident regime to participate in its own dismantlement. An exploding Iraq and the role of a Syria-based Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in igniting the explosion have obliged the administration either to rethink matters thoroughly or to produce the illusion of action.
One is strongly tempted to give the administration the benefit of the doubt. The decision to put the Department of Defense in charge of arming, training, and equipping is correct. It definitively rejects the argument of those who have counseled crawling back to the Assad regime. Ideally, implementation will focus on the creation, presumably in Jordan, Turkey, and elsewhere, of a genuine army with an actual chain of command: an organization that ultimately will absorb or displace disparate armed groups, fight in two directions, and defend an alternate Syrian government to be established inside Syria.
It will take time to organize and deploy such a force. Time, however, is an enemy. Vetted, nationalist rebel forces operating inside Syria now need the kinds of assistance that simply cannot await the unfolding of a program for which Congress has not appropriated a penny.
The Assad regime, after all, will not cease its Iran-and-Russia-abetted program of mass homicide, behavior that makes Syria the destination of choice for foreign fighters eager to partake in the ISIS response to regime sectarianism. ISIS itself—though now focused on sharing its pre-Islamic barbarism with Iraqis—will neither suspend nor stop its assaults on vulnerable Syrian civilians. The regime and ISIS share one key objective: kill the Syrian nationalists who oppose them both. The methodologies they have used to try to accomplish this shared objective have turned Syria into a refugee factory and a place of unmitigated misery. The absence of broad, civilized governance in areas not subordinated to Bashar al-Assad’s shabiha gangster state has opened vast areas of Syria to non-regime gangsterism, featuring the murderously deplorable ISIS.
Syrian nationalist rebels need the ability now to stop the regime’s wanton barrel bombing of residential areas. Presumably, the administration has pressed Iran and Russia relentlessly to get their client out of the business of massively lethal criminality. If the administration chooses now—as it should—to give vetted rebels the ability to counter merciless air attacks on vulnerable civilians, it might usefully detail the demarches it has made to Moscow and Tehran and the responses it has received.
Presumably the administration’s announcement will be well received by US partners and friends in the region. But here too, follow-up will be everything. Those states that would host and support overt, US-led training and equipping efforts will want to know that the United States is in this for the purpose of accomplishing a mission: neutralizing ISIS’ Syrian presence entirely; and offering the Assad regime the choice of negotiated political transition or military extinction. The hosting of this endeavor will not be risk free. Prospective hosts will want to know that the commitment is genuine; that it reflects a considered, revised policy view necessitated by a perceived change of circumstances.
Whether or not the commitment is genuine depends entirely on the intent of the American commander-in-chief. He is the one who will have to make the case to Congress, to allies and partners, and to the American people. It is an excellent case. Yet it can be made effectively only if he truly believes in it.
Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.