As President Barack Obama and his key advisors calculate how best to make life difficult for the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Syria, one thing is abundantly clear from the president’s words: US collaboration with the Assad regime is beyond the pale. Yet what, in Syria, would be the ground component of a military campaign supported by airstrikes? The Istanbul-based Syrian National Coalition—recognized by the United States and others as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people—has proposed part of the answer: it would relocate to Syria, pull together nationalist fighting forces, build a new rapid reaction force, and prosecute the two-way fight against the regime and ISIS. The Coalition’s president has reportedly presented the plan to Washington. How and when will Washington respond?
A staple of the Obama administration’s explanation for what has gone wrong in Syria centers on the alleged terminal dysfunction of the nationalist opposition to Bashar al-Assad. The composition of the armed opposition in terms of military skills has been consistently mischaracterized. The Syrian National Coalition has been criticized as a feckless debating society. What is a great power to do with such defective raw material? Were this not enough, others have weighed-in from the sidelines with observations gleefully received in Damascus: arming rebels only prolongs the unpleasantness of war; moderate rebels will only give, sell, or lose their weapons to extremists anyway; and there really are no moderates in any event. That, in sum, has been the self-justifying, self-crippling narrative that has helped Iran, Russia, and the Assad regime get away with mass murder while paving the way for the self-styled caliph.
The nationalist opposition has felt Washington’s condescension and contempt. It has seen thousands of young Syrian men leave its ranks to join well-funded jihadists offering arms, ammunition, spending money, and breakfast. It has received conditional assistance from regional powers more interested in acquiring clients than in building an effective fighting force with coherent, Syria-centric political direction. It has witnessed the Syria it hoped to rescue be utterly destroyed by the combined ministrations of a criminal clan and pre-Islamic barbarians. The Syrian National Coalition has now decided, in its hour of greatest peril, to do that which the world’s only superpower has demanded of it: lead the Syrian Revolution, and lead it from inside Syria.
Coalition President Hadi Al Bahra, elected to his position last July, has reportedly briefed his plan to senior United States government officials and to senior officials of states who have supported the nationalist opposition. He has heard encouraging noises from some, but reportedly nothing from Washington. He is hearing from some that Washington’s reaction will tell the tale: that regional powers will support the Coalition inside Syria against the combined weight of the regime, ISIS, Iran, and Russia only if Washington is all-in; only if the United States will back them in averting a Levantine Bay of Pigs. But Washington is silent.
Washington’s silence may well be explained by a complex planning process that has not yet run its course. President Obama has acknowledged that an overall strategy to deal with IS in Syria and Iraq is not yet in place. He deserves praise for highlighting the need for an objectives-based strategy rather than criticism for frankly admitting it has not yet been arrived at.
Yet surely, somewhere in the national security interagency system, someone has long-since put pen to paper on a contingency plan for supporting the nationalist opposition should it ever opt to parlay its “legitimate representative” recognition into an actual, operational presence inside Syria. Why, after all, would such recognition have been bestowed (as it was in December 2012) were there no intention to make something material of it at the proper time? With ISIS running amok in Syria and an alliance with a mass murderer unthinkable, will there ever be a better time for Washington to convert Syria-related words into action?
It is time—thanks to the ersatz caliph and his rapacious minions—to bring clarity to that which has often been opaque. Turkey and others have the requisite military capabilities to support a Syrian National Coalition enclave in northern Syria, one that perhaps could coordinate and cooperate with Syrian Kurdish forces as it tries to liberate Syrians from ISIS and regime control and assists with target acquisition. If what Turkey and others need to perform this service is US backup, Washington—in view of the threat posed by ISIS and the inadmissibility of collaboration with Assad—should be convincingly forthcoming. If the sum total of US assurances is only the calling of a Turkish bluff, so be it. At least the Coalition will have cut through yet another layer of empty verbiage.
If Washington’s silent treatment of the Syrian nationalist opposition is explained by intense homework aimed at producing a finished strategy, fine. In the end, it should be clear to the Obama administration that the desire of the Syrian National Coalition to lead from inside Syria is a good thing. It should make use of this desire, even as critics and regime apologists bark from the sidelines about the alleged absence of Syrian nationalists and need to choose between a criminal, self-anointed caliph and a mass murderer: the latter being dubbed the lesser of two evils. Still, there will be a price, as ISIS and the regime will attack viciously to destroy a nationalist enclave. To the extent external help will be needed to protect Syrian civilians from the onslaught and give the Coalition time to organize its forces, the United States will—at the very least—need to guard the backs of those who say they are prepared to help.
Washington’s silence may be fully justified. Yet time is of the essence. The Syrian nationalist opposition is prepared to do that which should have been done—with the support of the United States and others—within a year of its recognition as the legitimate representative of Syrians. In light of the ISIS threat Washington should respond positively and quickly.
Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.