This Is Why You Can’t Have Nice Guns
Syria's moderate rebels are brawling among themselves in the streets of Turkey. And these are the people the White House wants to arm?
URFA, Turkey — As the sun went down on the night of Sept. 25, a shouting match in the streets of this eastern Turkish city grew so heated that residents felt the need to call the police. The cause was a dispute between two Syrian opposition groups that were supposed to be on the same side: 12 Syrian rebel fighters from brigades affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had confronted three employees from the Syrian opposition’s interim government to accuse them of stealing money.
"There were many times that we wanted to start fighting, but we controlled ourselves," said Mohammed, a fighter for the FSA-affiliated Suqoor Ali Brigade who was involved in the confrontation. The argument was only defused after the Turkish police showed up; both sides departed, with the underlying dispute left unresolved.
As the United States escalates its campaign against the Islamic State, the confrontation in Urfa represents a microcosm of the larger struggles that have faced Washington’s allies within the Syrian opposition. The Syrian opposition coalition, which President Barack Obama has touted as the "legitimate representative of the Syrian people" and supported as the opposition’s interlocutor in negotiations with the Syrian regime, has been plagued by a lack of funds and a crippling distrust among the exiled anti-Assad forces.
As a result, the institutions that U.S. officials hoped could fill the vacuum in areas abandoned by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime have been largely excluded from the international campaign in Syria. Washington has not coordinated with the FSA; in the words of one Arab intelligence officer, the loosely knit collection of militias "is not ready yet to control the ground." Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition coalition continues to be hobbled by a rivalry between its two major patrons, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have struggled to place their allies in positions of power within the organization.
Most recently, the Syrian opposition coalition reappointed Ahmed Toumeh as head of its interim government, a body overseen by the coalition that was intended to provide services such as medical treatment and clean water, and establish nascent governing institutions in areas that had been freed from Assad. Toumeh, who is said to be backed by Qatar, had lost his position when then coalition leader Ahmad al-Jarba, a Saudi-backed figure, dissolved the interim government in July.
The work of the interim government stagnated over the intervening three months, as international donors hesitated to give funds to an institution without clear leadership.
"I would say the current situation is not very good — it’s quite sad, actually," said Ghassan Hitto, who was appointed as the interim government’s first prime minister in March, before being forced to resign in July due to opposition by Saudi-backed figures. "Our friends, those who otherwise would want to support the government, they have put a lot of things on pause."
The tussle in Urfa shows how the exiled opposition is struggling even to win the trust of Syrians who should be its natural allies — in this case, FSA fighters from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor who had been driven from their homes by the Islamic State. The confrontation stemmed from a promise by the interim government to distribute $150 to each injured FSA fighter in the city. The rebels contend that they compiled 343 names of injured fighters and gave the list to the interim government. When the government drew up the final list, however, the fighters said that some of those names had been deleted and replaced with roughly 50 people whom they had never heard of before. They argued that the interim government officials had manufactured those names to pocket the money for themselves — approximately $7,500.
"From the big one to the small one, they are thieves," Mohammed said. "They don’t want to do anything for people; they just want to take the money."
An official with the interim government, speaking on condition of anonymity, had a different story. The official said that the interim government had informed the rebels that it only had enough money for 300 fighters, and the different brigades would need to reach an agreement among themselves over which fighters would make it onto the list. The dispute broke out, the official said, when the brigades could not come to an agreement over how the money would be distributed.
When Hitto came into office, he had ambitious plans to transform the interim government into an institution that could administer freed areas in northern Syria. However, those plans were soon dramatically curtailed under his successors, while the coalition’s internal political battles prevented the emergence of strong leadership that could drum up significant funding. As a result, the interim government is a body that is still almost entirely based in Turkey.
"I believe one of the errors that were made by the interim government was, for some odd reason, that they thought they could have an effective government outside of Syria," said Hitto. "If you go [to the FSA] and tell them, ‘Listen, you go fight Assad, you go protect our cities, and we’re going to take care of all the civil work,’ that’ll work. I went inside Syria and I tried this several times — every conversation, not a single time people resisted."
Hitto said that a properly funded and supported interim government could have been a tool in the international effort against the Islamic State, by providing an alternative to the jihadist groups. What’s more, he argued, it would have given the anti-Assad forces leverage in their negotiations with the Syrian regime, by showing that Damascus is not the only authority capable of administering territory. "Having an interim government gives the opposition not a set of teeth, but it gives them a tooth or two," Hitto said. "At least something to get a negotiation started."
Some of the opposition coalition’s forays into providing humanitarian support in Syria, however, have only caused more problems. Last month, at least 15 children died after receiving vaccinations for measles that had been distributed by the opposition coalition. The vaccine had been improperly mixed with muscle relaxant; the World Health Organization blamed "human error" for the mistake. The coalition responded by firing five officials, including Suheir al-Atassi, the head of the coalition’s Assistance Coordination Unit, which is charged with distributing humanitarian assistance inside Syria. Atassi hit back with a lengthy Facebook post arguing that her dismissal was invalid, and accused the opposition leadership of "exploiting the death of innocent children in the internal struggles within the coalition."
While the United States continues to describe the exiled Syrian opposition as a partner in its war against the Islamic State, former U.S. officials are more candid about the limits of its influence. Robert Ford, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Syria, said that his experience as a U.S. diplomat during the Iraq war made him skeptical of the exiled opposition body’s weight on the ground. "They need to get themselves out of Istanbul, and instead get themselves installed in Syria, with or without a no-fly zone," he said. "And we’ve raised that with them."
Other former U.S. officials, however, suggest the opposition’s ineffectiveness should have been expected after Syria’s long bout of authoritarianism. "Look, Syria and Syrians were coming out of a 50-plus-year political coma [when the opposition bodies were formed]," said Fred Hof, a former special advisor on Syria at the State Department and currently a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "Did we really expect opposition politics to be characterized by trust, openness, loyalty, and selfless teamwork?"
Hof said that rather than focusing on the Syrian coalition’s failings, President Barack Obama’s administration should be asking whether it did everything possible to give the moderate opposition a chance to succeed. "If we want the Syrian National Coalition to be an effective part of the anti-ISIL coalition, we’ll help it get into Syria," he said. "If we want to bind anti-Assad Syrians to our anti-ISIL efforts, we’ll engage ISIL elements attacking nationalist forces and we’ll ground Assad’s air force. The challenge is less one of opposition dysfunction than it is our own."
Whoever is to blame for the state of the official anti-Assad opposition, however, few deny that its influence in Syria is vanishingly small. And that has left the United States in the unenviable position of working for the removal of both the Islamic State and the Assad regime, while having few viable partners to fill the vacuum left in their wake.