Syria: The Gutman Report

Turkey-based, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Roy Gutman of McClatchy closed out 2014 with a dispatch that would be shocking if only there were still capacity for shock when it comes to Washington’s Syria policy. Gutman reported being told by Syrian opposition leaders of being ignored by the Obama administration last April when they warned of a major ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) offensive brewing. The alleged warning centered on Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria rather than on Iraq; still, nationalist opposition requests for more materiel to fight ISIL were reportedly ignored. According to Gutman, “Moderate rebels, despite their battlefield setbacks, have unique assets, such as ground-level intelligence about the locations and movements of the Islamic State, a grasp of local politics and the drive to expel foreign-led forces from their country. But they’ve failed to gain traction with the Obama administration for their plans to fight the terror groups, and recently they’ve had trouble even getting a hearing.”

These are, of course, serious accusations: easily deniable, whether true or not. Yet the Department of State and the US Central Command both declined to comment. “No comment” admits nothing. Yet if the report that the administration ignored the warning of major ISIL offensive percolating two months before it happened is false, it would have been easy enough for the media-savvy Obama team to warn a Pulitzer Prize winner away from pursuing a false lead and give him a flat denial for the record. It did not do so.

Roy Gutman is neither an enemy of the Obama administration nor a purveyor of gossip. These facts do not necessarily confirm the accuracy of the story he is reporting. The leaders of the Syrian National Coalition—recognized in December 2012 by the United States and others as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people—is totally at sea in its relationship with the Obama administration: an administration claiming to be at war with ISIL and authorized by the Congress to train and equip non-jihadist Syrian rebels. Without necessarily assuming that opposition exiles in Istanbul and nationalist units inside Syria have something decisive or even useful to offer, is it not a proposition worth testing?

Sadly, the Gutman story will likely only increase the alienation of Washington from the nationalist opposition. The White House has learned to live with the mass murder survival strategy of the Assad regime: it does not wish to cross Iran on this matter. The mainstream Syrian opposition, on the other hand, has been rendered largely dysfunctional and divided by Saudis, Turks, Qataris, and the rest: regional actors pursuing narrow interests and never brought to heel by Washington. It is easy for this administration to ridicule, belittle, blame, and ignore the Syrian opposition. It is an easy target; a target that can be engaged—leaving aside a possible missed clue about ISIL—with impunity. The president of the Syrian National Coalition is not, after all, someone whose reservations about American policy can translate into a beating for the United States. He is not Iran’s Supreme Leader. He is not Bashar al-Assad.

It is not inconceivable that the Syrian National Coalition President at the time, Hadi al-Bahra, chose to mislead Gutman about the nature of the April 17, 2014 warning about ISIL. Neither is it beyond belief that Syrian opposition characterization of a senior American official as a passive, one-way “complaint box” is unfair and inaccurate. Whether manufactured or not, the consequences of the allegations will not be positive. Administration contempt for Syrian nationalists will increase, whether the claims are true or not. And, to the extent Roy Gutman is read inside Syria, the Syrian National Coalition has advertised to the constituents it seeks its ineffectiveness with respect to the Obama administration.

Perhaps the nationalist opposition calculates that Congress will oblige the administration to act as if the war against ISIL in Syria is a serious undertaking. This too would be a mistake. There are indeed members of Congress—Democrats and Republicans, senators and representatives—who believe with conviction that the administration’s Syria policy has been wrong in ways far transcending Syria. They are far outnumbered by those for whom mass murder in Syria and the sacrifice of American credibility brought about by speaking loudly with no stick are regrettable, but neither fatal nor fixable. And the president seems unmoved and unmovable. Does he see his approach to Syria as a function of the “strategic patience” with which he credits himself?

President Obama’s flirtation with military strikes in the wake of the Assad regime’s August 2013 chemical atrocity inspired Russia to intervene diplomatically with extraordinary skill and dexterity. By convincing its client to give up his chemical weapons, Moscow blunted the threat of American strikes while freeing Assad to ramp up his war crimes and crimes against humanity in a non-chemical manner: leaving aside, of course, chlorine bombs. Now, faced with rumors that the Obama administration would recognize the obvious—that Assad is the primary cause and principal sustainer of the ISIL phenomenon in Syria—Russian diplomacy is again in full swing. Fearful that the Obama administration might actually consider excluding regime aircraft from a Syrian protected zone, and worried that the train and equip program for Syrian nationalists might be real, Russia has called for peace negotiations later this month in Moscow. As long as Washington is frozen long enough for Assad and ISIL to rout nationalists from Aleppo, it costs Moscow nothing to convince its client to send a delegation to chat.

This too is problematical for the American-designated legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. The Syrian National Coalition played the administration’s losing Geneva game in early 2014: it did so with dignity and competence in the face of regime defiance. It has every right to ignore the Russian gambit and simply suggest that the P5 let it know when the Assad regime is prepared to implement the terms of the June 2012 Geneva Final Communiqué. Indeed, the only Syria-related peace conference that would make any sense at present would be one in which Tehran and Moscow convince their client to be bound by the Final Communiqué. This seems not to be what they have in mind.

Still, the Syrian opposition seems to be on its own, a condition not likely to be rectified by its conversations with Roy Gutman. One might say that opposition leaders have, unlike Bashar al-Assad, been unlucky with their “friends.” For Syria and its people, however, bad luck has had the most horrific of consequences. It is not too late for American policy to change fundamentally, especially given the requirement that ISIL be beaten in Syria—not just Iraq. But the administration seems single-minded in its pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Iran—a worthy goal to be sure. Is the goal made more achievable by bowing to Tehran and its client in Damascus? And if it is, who will want to confront the bill—particularly the itemization of children slaughtered and innocent lives brought to ruin? Perhaps this too can be blamed on those who had the temerity to risk all for civilized governance in Syria.

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

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Image: Photo: Militant Islamist fighters hold the flag of Islamic State (IS) while taking part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province in this June 30, 2014 file photo (Reuters)