Rout of Moderate Rebels Leaves Obama With Vexing Syria Options

With U.S.-backed rebels trapped between Assad and ISIS, the White House is closer to establishing a safe zone in northern Syria.


The Obama administration is edging closer to establishing a safe zone in northern Syria that will allow rebel fighters to remain in the country without being forced out by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and rival militant groups, according to analysts.

Setting up such safe zones inside Syria will also address a key demand by Turkey, which sees the Assad regime as a greater threat than the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and has been pushing the United States to set up such areas as a condition for fuller participation in the coalition against the Sunni militant group that is also known as ISIS and ISIL.

"If these safe havens are not established in northern Syria, the rebels will be effectively squeezed out by the Assad regime in a short time," said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "So this is a last call to maintain and preserve rebel presence in northern Syria."

Vice President Joe Biden is expected to arrive in Istanbul early next week, and his discussion with Turkish leaders is likely to focus on the Syria question and about speeding up the training and equipping of rebels fighting both Assad and ISIS that is underway, Cagaptay said. The White House did not respond to a query on Biden’s travel plans.

Syrian rebels being trained and equipped by the United States, mostly under a CIA program, were routed by al Qaeda-affiliated groups, including al-Nusra Front, last week, the Washington Post reported. The Free Syrian Army was losing its stronghold in the northern Syrian province of Idlib and that may complicate U.S. efforts to ramp up a program to recruit and train thousands of rebels, the Post reported.

Members of the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front have agreed to stop fighting each other and work together against their opponents, the Associated Press reported on Thursday, citing an unnamed high-level Syrian opposition official and a rebel commander. If true, that could complicate the Obama administration’s plans to arm moderate rebels who will now face a stronger adversary.

Moderate rebels battling both the Assad regime and the Islamic State are huddled in a narrow strip between the Syrian city of Aleppo and the Turkish border, about 20 miles away, Cagaptay said. Establishing a safe zone in that area could protect the rebels and also allow refugees fleeing the conflict to remain in Syria without crossing into Turkey, which is already burdened by refugees from the Syrian civil war, he said.

Details of how to protect the safe zone from attacks are still being worked out, said Cagaptay, who is being consulted by U.S. and Turkish officials. Turkey may rely on moderate Syrian rebels to safeguard the perimeter of such a zone but details about adding a no-fly zone that would ensure that the Assad regime doesn’t use its airplanes to target rebels, which would require American military power, are not yet worked out, Cagaptay said.

After months of delaying any assistance to Syrian rebels battling Assad’s regime, President Barack Obama authorized covert aid last year that allowed small arms to flow to some rebel groups. In June, Obama announced a larger, $500 million overt program for Syrian rebels that will recruit, train, and equip as many as 5,000 of them at installations in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.

Turkey is expected to establish locations sooner than Jordan, which in turn will set up its sites before Saudi Arabia, said one U.S. official familiar with the unfinalized plans.

The Obama administration’s policy of vetting and arming moderate Syrian rebels is getting more complicated by the day, according to Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.

Syria is fragmented between the Assad regime in the country’s west, backed by Russia and Iran, and as many as 70 rebel factions, including some Islamist forces, in the less populated eastern part of the country, Cordesman wrote in a Nov. 10 analysis.

The White House administration denied a Thursday CNN report that it is in search of a new Syria strategy. Citing unnamed officials, the network said Obama asked his national security team to review his policy because the Islamic State could not be defeated without a political transition in Syria.

Asked about the report, Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, said, "No. There’s no formal strategy review of our Syria policy."

"What there is, is a strategy for degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL that requires us to take a hard look at what we’re doing on a regular basis," Rhodes said on Thursday at a news conference in Naypyidaw, Burma, where he’s traveling with Obama.

"And I think the president wants to make sure that we’re asking hard questions about what we’re targeting in Syria, how we’re able to degrade ISIL," Rhodes continued. "But also about how we’re supporting the opposition and building them up as a counterweight to ISIL, but also ultimately, of course, as a counterweight to the Assad regime and how we’re supporting that political process that I talked about earlier that can lead to a transition inside of Syria."

Even if there’s no formal strategic review underway, once vetted and trained rebel fighters are sent into Syria, the American military role will have to change, said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute and an expert on Syria.

"If you train and equip rebels and send them into Syria, they’re going to attack ISIS first but they’ll be fighting the Assad regime as well," Tabler said. "As soon as U.S.-trained troops enter Syria and the Assad regime attacks them, there’s going to be a lot of pressure to support those troops. And we’ll probably give it."

In other words, such a U.S. military intervention to protect Syrian rebels from Assad’s attacks could mean a direct U.S. military role in getting rid of Assad. The implications of such an outcome could well be under discussion among U.S. officials, Tabler said.

The administration also is grappling with what comes once Assad is gone, Tabler said. "That’s the big problem. We don’t have the strategy for what comes after Assad. I’m not sure we’re going to have that for a while."

 Twitter: @g_ratnam

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