Best Defense

Here’s the last Syrian option we have left

With no end in sight in the country's brutal civil war, guest columnist and former Marine Jim Sisco offers a way forward.


By Jim Sisco

Best Defense guest columnist

The Syrian civil war is over. Free Syrian Army (FSA) units have been decimated, and the will of the Syrian people is broken. Yet, the Obama administration has called again for another review of the Syrian strategy. Why should one believe the outcome of this review will be different from any of the previous reviews? The same individuals and organizations will present variations of the same opinions and data, with the result being the same — train and equip moderate Free Syrian Army units and personnel to fight Assad’s forces, al-Nusra and ISIS. This strategy has failed from the beginning and will continue to fail because the administration has been unable to understand the cultural nuances within the environment, identify moderate forces operating within liberated territories across Syria, and deliver resources in any measurable way.

A recent article in Newsweek, “Inside the CIA’s Syrian Rebels Vetting Machine,” described the CIA’s system to identify moderate forces as antiquated and dysfunctional at best. The system, designed during the Cold War, is not able to identify moderate FSA units or individuals for several reasons. First and foremost, the system fails to understand and integrate the historical and contemporary regional dynamics or account for Syrian ethnic, tribal, and religious dynamics. Second, the CIA and intelligence community does not have a robust ” ground game” in Syria and must rely on third-party actors to identify moderate units and individuals. Third and most importantly, the inability to positively identify moderate units, based on the system’s flaws, has built significant distrust within the organization and hampered the delivery of arms and equipment to FSA units.

For the reasons stated above, the administration has failed to effectively deliver resources on a scale that would change the outcome of the war. This inaction, over the past three years, has led to the decimation of the majority of FSA units by Assad forces, forced the remaining units to join ISIS or al-Nusra for their own survival, and created a sense of distrust with U.S. intentions and actions with Syrian civil society. But worst of all, the administration’s inaction has created generational enemies within Syria and reinforced perceptions within the region.

Aleppo is the last bastion of hope for the FSA. Aleppo also provides the Obama administration a way to correct the inactions that have created groups like ISIS and al-Nusra and proliferated their existence. The obstacles that have prevented the administration from identifying moderate FSA units can be overcome. Moderate units still exist within Aleppo and parts of Syria and can be quickly identified and resourced. However, this will require the CIA, the State Department, and the intelligence community to leverage non-traditional information sources to identify moderate FSA units.

Fortunately, the ability to identify moderate FSA units within Aleppo and across Syria already exists. Within liberated and non-liberated territories of Syria, non-governmental organizations and private sector non-profit organizations have robust, extensive networks that track and monitor activities, key leaders, and individuals within individual FSA units. Moreover, these organizations coordinate with civil administrative councils — local governance bodies that administer justice and deliver goods and services to Syrian civilians — which often direct and control FSA units.

Even if the administration were able to quickly identify and arm moderate FSA units, this will not be sufficient to turn the tide of the conflict. The only way to shape the outcome of the war is to attack Assad’s forces and degrade his ability to strike FSA units in Aleppo. The first step is to strike the Terrestrial Trunked Radio (TETRA) communication system in territories where FSA units exist. TETRA provides encrypted, long-range communications that enable Assad’s security forces to coordinate and maneuver forces and close air support against FSA units.

Jim Sisco is a former recon Marine and naval intelligence officer and is currently the president of ENODO Global, a business intelligence firm that focuses on population-centric analysis to solve complex social problems in dynamic cultural environments.


Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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