Moderate rebel groups are suffering. The Islamic State and Nusra are gaining ground. And Washington’s piecemeal efforts are worthless. Here’s a grand plan worth paying for.
- By Robert S. FordRobert S. Ford is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. He previously served as U.S. ambassador to Syria and Algeria and was deputy U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
The current U.S. strategy in Syria isn’t working. Despite the coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State, the group still has strategic depth in Syria to back its campaign in Iraq. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, meanwhile, isn’t fighting the Islamic State — it’s locked in combat with the moderate opposition. Despite Washington’s hope for a national political transition away from Assad, there is no sign of a cease-fire, much less a comprehensive political deal.
More than ever, Americans — and Syrians — need to ask themselves what has gone wrong and what can be fixed. U.S. strategy needs to center on taking back ground from the Islamic State and driving a wedge between Assad’s small ruling circle and his increasingly wobbly support base so that a new government can be established to rally more Syrians against the jihadis. Reinforcing Syria’s moderate rebels is still the key component in achieving these goals, but we — and they — have to get the strategy and tactics right.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration should undertake a major diplomatic and assistance effort, or it should walk away from Syria. Merely continuing to inject small amounts of aid and men in the fight won’t sustainably contain the jihadis or be sufficient to reach the political negotiation the administration keeps hoping for.
The quiet end to the Syrian armed opposition’s Hazm Movement, with which the Americans had worked in northern Syria, was the latest signpost of the current failed policy. With aid coming too little and too late, the movement was easily knocked aside by al Qaeda-linked extremists who gained new territory and border crossings. It is far from the only moderate rebel group to suffer large setbacks in recent months: Others are simultaneously under attack from Assad regime forces (which are strongly reinforced by Iranian and Hezbollah troops), jihadis from the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, and the Islamic State.
Meanwhile, the Americans didn’t ramp up aid to the secular moderates when they needed it most. Instead, assistance to moderate Syrian fighters has been small and erratic, and the rebel fighters have been badly divided by foreign states parceling out desperately needed aid among multiple groups. This has created a vicious cycle, forcing the moderate rebels to compete against each other and to sometimes cooperate with al-Nusra Front. That in turn has aggravated foreign states and scared off any regime elements that might want to negotiate a deal, thus extending the war of attrition to the benefit of the Islamic State.
Rather than boosting the capacity of existing moderate fighting groups, the U.S. administration has decided to build an entirely new force. As currently envisioned, this plan will be too little, too late. The fighting units will be much smaller than Islamic State forces operating in Syria. In addition, the plan will further split the moderate armed opposition and will do nothing to counter the Islamic State’s biggest recruitment tool — the Assad regime’s brutality.
Moreover, Assad will likely make good on his recent threat in a Foreign Affairs interview to attack the U.S.-trained Syrian rebel force. This is nothing new: Assad’s ground and air forces have consistently targeted moderate armed groups fighting the Islamic State in northern and eastern Syria over the past two years.
If the administration wants these beleaguered fighters to be successful, it will face the question of expanding the U.S. air mission in Syria. Protecting these small units from Assad air force attacks, even in eastern Syria, would require some kind of no-fly zone, a step the administration has long resisted. If the Obama administration goes through with such a step, it ought also to negotiate a package deal with the Syrian opposition and regional allies to get all sides on the same page on a strategy for degrading the Islamic State and achieving a negotiated Syrian political deal.
The larger package deal is vital. Simply increasing material aid to the moderate fighters in northern and southern Syria, even by huge amounts, won’t be enough. The key is settling on a revised strategy that establishes a unified command structure for the non-jihadi opposition.
This unified structure must be the sole conduit for external funding, arming, and training. It must include the main non-jihadi rebel groups and must be led by a Syrian who enjoys wide support from Syrians fighting on the ground and from foreign states. Those who refuse to follow orders from the unified command must be cut off from any assistance. This is the only way to end the fragmentation that has long plagued the moderate armed opposition and to ensure it will support any eventual negotiation.
Syrian fighters, especially Sunni Arabs, are best placed to confront Sunni Arab extremists in their country and limit the spread of the extremists’ appeal. This means that Islamist opposition groups that are conservative, but do not insist on imposing an Islamic state by force, likely will be part of the solution.
The United States and Turkey need to find common ground under the revised strategy. Turkey must finally shut off smuggling paths across its borders for the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front, which have been hugely beneficial to these jihadi groups.
Ankara has been trying to exploit extremists to fight both the Assad regime and the PYD, the terrorist PKK-affiliate operating in Syria. A U.S. strategy that provides greater support for moderate forces fighting Assad and the jihadis, and which also ends U.S. actions that foster Kurdish separatism in Syria, could convince Turkey to abandon this path.
While U.S. military aid to the Syrian Kurdish fighters from the PYD helped to combat the Islamic State around the northern city of Kobani, it also fosters the PYD’s separatist ambitions. The PYD has already unilaterally announced an autonomous zone in northern Syria, which has spurred fearful Arab tribes in the area either to back Assad or the Islamic State. The U.S. emphasis on using Syrian Kurds against the Islamic State won’t end the jihadi threat — it will only aggravate it, and the broader Syrian conflict. The Syrian Kurds’ demand for decentralization may be the only way to reassemble a shattered Syria one day, but for now, the Americans and their allies must tell the PYD that autonomous zones only belong as part of longer-term political negotiations involving all Syrians.
Hugely boosted U.S. aid to the Syrian opposition should come with strings attached — a lot of them. In return for increased support, the Syrian opposition writ large must agree on these six conditions:
1) That armed groups receiving assistance from the newly created central command will obey its orders only.
2) That the armed opposition will stop atrocities against civilian communities that have backed the Assad regime and that the armed opposition command will accept responsibility for actions of its constituent groups.
3) That the armed opposition will sever all ties with al-Nusra Front.
4) That the armed opposition’s leadership must constantly reiterate that it is not seeking to destroy Christian, Alawite, or other minority communities and is prepared to negotiate local security arrangements, including with Syrian Arab Army elements, to protect all Syrians.
5) That it will negotiate a national political deal to end the conflict without Assad’s departure as a pre-condition.
6) That any political coalition purporting to lead the opposition must have genuine representation from minorities and top-level businessmen in Syria — communities that have, broadly speaking, supported Assad’s government — and that representation will not come mainly from long-term expatriates.
Implementing these steps would help create a moderate rebel force able to confront the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front, and also pave the way for a real national political negotiation. If U.S. regional partners and the Syrian opposition won’t accept the strategy and the tactics to make it work, or if the Obama administration won’t expand its level of assistance and the air mission, then Washington needs to drop the goal of significantly degrading the Islamic State in Syria over the next several years. It would be better for American credibility to walk away than try more halfhearted measures in Syria.
After two years of experience, we should realize that limited actions aren’t enough to address the major threats emanating from Syria. Our foreign partners want U.S. vision and leadership to contain extremists and launch a successful negotiation for a Syrian unity government, which is the only sustainable fix to the extremist threat. Let’s give it to them.
Photo credit: Drew Angerer, Stringer, Getty Images News