The Obama administration, famously skeptical about aiding Syrian revolutionaries, has proposed $500 million to be used for the training of “moderate” rebel forces. This announcement likely comes as a way to offset the growing power of the Islamic State, but even should the assistance be provided as proposed, the effects it will have are minimal. The “moderates” are demoralized, out-gunned, and out-funded while their leadership is splintered and rife with corruption. Though the Obama administration may not want to admit it yet, the “moderates” have, barring nothing short of a miracle, lost. If the Islamic State is as much of a threat as the Obama administration and the West describe it as, the unfortunate reality for Mr. Obama is that, in order to combat the Islamic State’s Syrian havens, he will need to reconsider his options; for the Free Syrian Army can not be a strong bulwark against the Islamic State.
The Syrian Civil War has proven to be one of the greatest foreign policy challenges for the Obama administration in the Middle East. In addition to the United States’ distaste for heinous crimes attributed to the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, Mr. Obama has been forced to contend with the rise of radical Islamic extremist groups inside the country. While publicly mulling means to support the “vetted” elements of the Syrian opposition, namely the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its political wing, Mr. Obama has been mindful of the lessons of Afghanistan in the 1980s and has thus spent the majority of the war providing the rebels fighting Mr. Assad with very little in terms of supplies. Most of that aid has been in the form of non-lethal equipment.
The al-Qaeda Fear:
As it becomes increasingly clear that al-Qaida-linked and directly affiliated militants (as well as other militias) have gained tremendous ground due to the ineffectiveness of the FSA, the Obama administration appears to have stepped up its support of the FSA. Militias associated with the umbrella organization have been photographed using heavy anti-tank weapons that some analysts believe may have originated from the United States. Following the fall of the Sunni portion of neighboring Iraq to the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (now called the Islamic State), a radical Islamist group whose capital is in ar-Raqqah, Syria, the problem of extremism in the region has rapidly come to the forefront of the United States’ attention. The Islamic State, whose predecessor, al-Qaida in Iraq, fought the United States, espouses a hard-line interpretation of religious law (Sharia) and is accused of mass atrocities in the territory it dominates. In light of the campaign by the Islamic State, Mr. Obama again publicly toyed with the idea of providing direct training and aid to the FSA with a proposed price tag of $500 million.
What Should be Done:
This plan for training, should it come to fruition, comes too little, too late and will have hardly any effect in the field in Syria. The FSA will not be able to gain significant ground, for it is still out-gunned and out-financed by both the government and its rivals, nor is the aid intended to produce such a result. Witnessing what has happened in Libya with the fall of Colonel Qaddafi, it is evident that, should Mr. Assad fall to the FSA or any another opposition forces, Syria will devolve into anarchy. Directly opposing the Assad government looks less the smart decision for the Obama administration – what is axiomatic is focusing on the threat posed by the Islamic State. Left unchecked, the Obama administration fears that the Islamic State could utilize its territory as a staging point for exporting terrorism. Indeed, the Islamic State has an ultimate vision of a global caliphate carved out by military conquest. Shoring up the FSA in Syria while disrupting the Islamic State in its Iraqi possessions is the American strategy to stop that plan in its tracks.
The Syrian component of that strategy is not reflective of the reality on the ground. The FSA is demoralized. Its support base is deteriorating given frustration with its inability to take and hold strategic points. Its military leadership was these past 2 weeks sacked for corruption, following the decision to sack a key leader, General Salim Idriss, earlier in the year due to ineffectiveness. While a boost in training may prolong its demise, many of its members have defected to other, more potent opposition groups. The political wing associated with the FSA has made little progress either.
Composed of those seen mainly as disconnected exiles, it has reached scarce few agreements in negotiations with the Assad government in talks in Geneva. The political opposition is fractured and not representative of the rebels on the ground, giving it little clout and providing the Assad government no true motive to deliver at the table.
The Obama administration is fast being faced with a hard truth: the group it favors more than others in Syria has lost -- perhaps as a direct result of US indifference throughout the course of the war. The US may not want to admit this, but, barring a miracle, the FSA cannot achieve objectives on the ground or at the negotiating table and the group is dangerously close to disintegrating altogether. The FSA is not now nor can it be a bulwark against the Islamic State and If Mr. Obama is banking on it doing that, he should reconsider his options.
-- This post was written by a colleague of the staff, who goes by the pseudonym Kyle Chavez. Mr. Chavez is a graduate of Pennsylvania State University. He specializes in Middle Eastern affairs, although he studies
events happening the world over with a general focus on global security.