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July 31, 2015
The temptation to heap scorn on the US-led “train-and-equip” program seeking to create an anti-Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) Syrian ground force by recruiting Syria rebels will no doubt increase due to the kidnapping (by the Nusra Front) of the commander of the unit into which new trainees have been funneled. That temptation should be resisted. Too many excellent uniformed professionals—American and British—are involved in this effort to merit classifying it as a bad joke. It is not “train and equip” execution that needs fixing. Rather it is the policy in which execution is framed that needs now adjustment, lest the labors of talented military professionals come to naught.

The Syrian rebel unit in question is called “Division 30.” Its order of battle seems not to be publicly available. It is located in Aleppo Province, where ISIL and the Assad regime both seek to eliminate nationalist, non-jihadist alternatives to each: a common aim occasionally supplemented by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. Division 30, deployed in an area where it faces ISIL ground forces and not the regime, makes it an attractive vessel for a train-and-equip program. The program awkwardly tries to persuade Syrian nationalist rebels that their real enemy is not an Iranian-supported regime trying to survive through mass homicidal collective punishment, but the entity filling the vacuum created by Assad regime illegitimacy and criminality: ISIL.

Feeding a handful of Syrian rebels recently trained and equipped in Turkey into a unit preoccupied with ISIL, therefore, seemed to be a sensible way to accommodate a White House policy downplaying the organic connection between Assad regime criminality and ISIL’s ability to operate inside Syria. Administration officials touted an agreement with Turkey that would clear ISIL from a sixty-eight-mile stretch of border from Jarabulus to A’zaz and created an “ISIL-free zone” south of the border inside Syria, where Division 30 would be able to mount anti-ISIL operations eastward. Regrettably, the zone in question is not also Nusra Front-free. Nusra’s detention of Division 30’s commander introduces a significant complication to what seemed on paper to be an excellent idea.

That which distinguishes Nusra from ISIL is that the former is manned largely by young Syrians who want to fight the Assad regime; fighters who were drawn to Nusra by the organization’s resources and tactical successes. Nusra’s leadership, however, consists of criminals and terrorists. Recently a Tunisian Nusra operative carried out the massacre of Syrian Druze civilians. ISIL, on the other hand, fights the regime only when the regime has something it wants: an oil field, a weapons-rich military base, or a town containing priceless antiquities. Nusra and ISIL have sometimes come to blows. Yet what they have in common with the Assad regime is a desire to marginalize the impact of armed Syrian nationalists offering an alternative to war crimes and terror—along with local governance councils and civil society organizations. Nusra’s Syrian composition at the fighter level and its willingness to battle the regime often makes it a tactical partner for otherwise outgunned nationalists. But periodically, the organization’s leadership demonstrates its true al-Qaeda colors, as it did in the Division 30 kidnapping incident.

Still, to express dismay over the Nusra Front’s inconvenient intervention is about as useful as railing against the feeding proclivities of a shark. Nusra saw a threat and acted upon it. After all, a protected zone does not come about by proclamation. It requires not only protection from the air, but on the ground as well. Given a situation on the ground in northern Syria where the Nusra Front is the strongest of the anti-regime combat elements, it cannot suffice to place the near-term ground protection of the ISIL-free zone in the hands of Division 30. Washington is not, after all, signing up to the proposition that ISIL-free means Nusra-dominated.

For the concept of an ISIL-free zone in which nationalist units can be readied for anti-ISIL ground operations eastward toward Raqqa to work, Turkish ground forces must clear the area in question and defend it for the near term. Nusra would probably not wish to confront the Turkish Army. It would be a mistake for it to do so. Any Assad regime objection to a Turkish military intervention aimed at facilitating the fight against ISIL would only make explicit that which has been—at the very least—implicit: the tacit cooperative, live-and-let-live relationship between the regime and ISIL aimed at achieving their joint objective of becoming the last two parties standing in Syria.

An ISIL-free zone must also be regime-free and Nusra-free to be of any practical value. It cannot be those things absent a US-enforced air exclusion zone covering Syrian airspace above and beyond the zone and Turkish ground forces defending the zone up to limits agreed by Ankara and Washington. The air exclusion zone will reduce or stop altogether regime barrel bombing. Turkish ground power can give armed Syrian nationalists a chance to build their capabilities without being set upon by regime forces or al-Qaeda affiliates.

For train-and-equip to have the anti-ISIL impact its implementers seek, the Obama administration ultimately must act operationally in a way consistent with what it knows and accepts intellectually: that the Assad regime is the iron lung pumping pure political oxygen into an ISIL presence in Syria that sustains its military operations in Iraq; that every barrel bomb dropped by a regime helicopter and every Syrian child starved by a regime siege is a recruiting victory for “Caliph” Baghdadi. Having pulled its punches in Syria for fear of offending Iran during the nuclear talks, the administration is now free to push back against the Assad adjunct of the ISIL phenomenon. It is the Assad boost for ISIL in Syria—sustained as it is by Tehran—that makes a point pertinent to Iraq as well. In no way is Iran a partner of the United States or the US-led coalition in the battle against ISIL. By standing up to Iran, beginning in Syria, President Barack Obama can demonstrate to members of Congress debating the nuclear deal that he is neither credulous nor gullible when it comes to the toxic, ISIL-abetting role Iran is playing in the Levant.

Step one is to make something real of the ISIL-free zone in northern Syria. With US air power and Turkish ground power combining to secure this zone, work can begin to build an all-Syrian national stabilization force: a nationalist force endowed with robust military and civil-military capabilities that might focus first on the threat from ISIL, but one that would ultimately aim to stabilize the entire country. Trying to recruit genuinely nationalistic Syrians to an enterprise that says, in effect, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain who slaughters your women and starves your children” is a losing proposition. Indeed, civilian protection must be an inseparable component of the ISIL-free zone initiative.

The United States is at war with ISIL. ISIL is filling the vacuum created by Assad regime criminality. The regime’s depredations—fully supported by Iran—are essential to ISIL’s continued well-being. Policies that address these facts in operationally meaningful ways are essential. Getting the ISIL-free zone right in conjunction with Turkey is the essential first step.

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