FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
Fast & Furious: Libyan Edition
If you were a big fan of Operation Fast & Furious, that stroke of genius masterminded by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives which sought to ensnare Mexican drug lords in a violation of the law (think about that for a second) by letting them buy weapons in selected states in the American Southwest and use them to kill their opponents, innocent bystanders, and the occasional U.S. Border Patrol agent, you are going to love what the Obama administration has come up with in Syria.
The CIA has begun delivering weapons to rebels in Syria, ending months of delay in lethal aid that had been promised by the Obama administration, according to U.S. officials and Syrian figures. The shipments began streaming into the country over the past two weeks, along with separate deliveries by the State Department of vehicles and other gear — a flow of material that marks a major escalation of the U.S. role in Syria’s civil war.
The arms shipments, which are limited to light weapons and other munitions that can be tracked, began arriving in Syria at a moment of heightened tensions over threats by President Obama to order missile strikes to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons in a deadly attack near Damascus last month.
The arms are being delivered as the United States is also shipping new types of nonlethal gear to rebels. That aid includes vehicles, sophisticated communications equipment and advanced combat medical kits.
Like so much else the administration attempts, their goals seem plausible if your IQ approaches room temperature of if you are an academic.
The latest effort to provide aid is aimed at supporting rebel fighters who are under the command of Gen. Salim Idriss, according to officials, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because part of the initiative is covert. Idriss is the commander of the Supreme Military Council, a faction of the disjointed armed opposition.
U.S. officials, speaking about the provision of nonlethal aid, said they are determined to increase the cohesion and structure of the rebel fighting units.
“This doesn’t only lead to a more effective force, but it increases its ability to hold coalition groups together,” said Mark S. Ward, the State Department’s senior adviser on assistance to Syria, who coordinates nonlethal aid to rebels from southern Turkey. “They see their leadership is having some impact.”
So the scheme is to arm and supply the Syrian resistance nominally under the command of General Salim Idriss of the Free Syria Army. Clearly they intend that the FSA will supply other groups of fighters with weapons and non-lethal aid to enable the FSA to establish leadership over those groups.
Where this plan breaks down is on three fronts.
The first is the administration’s favorite fiction that General Idriss’s Free Syria Army is actually calling the shots. It isn’t.
A semi-exception to the rule is the General Staff of Brig. Gen. Salim Idriss, which is the most recent attempt to create a mainstream Western/Gulf-backed military leadership. Call it FSA if you want to.
The General Staff has received a formal pledge of allegiance from many commanders who themselves have a substantial personal following. Examples include Ahmed el-Sheikh of the Suqour el-Sham salafi group in Idleb, and his local partner-cum-rival Jamal Maarouf of the Shuhada Souriya faction. If all the factions which have declared in favor of Idriss were added up, they’d count at least 50,000 men, perhaps many more. But in reality, of course, they only follow their own leaders, and won’t take orders from Idriss. The elaborate command structure which has been released by the General Staff is a figment of the imagination, intended to create the impression of a unified organization that isn’t there.
Still, no matter how shallow and ephemeral their allegiance to Brig. Gen. Idriss may be, no other opposition figure can point to a similar show of support from the armed movement inside Syria. The reason for this widespread endorsement of Brig. Gen. Idriss isn’t his personal charm, good looks or presumed brilliance as a military strategist – it’s a lot simpler than that. See, there was an immediate payoff for attending the Antalya conference and pledging allegiance to Brig. Gen. Idriss and his General Staff: You got guns.
Idriss and the FSA, or whatever they are calling it this week, are seen as a pass-through for Western weapons and aid. If the momentum effectively shift to the rebels the leadership will devolve upon one of the groups actually fighting inside Syria.
The second issue that makes the gunrunning to Syria problematic is that if the operation works as intended most of the weapons and non-lethal aid will end up with the most effective fighting force: the al-Nusra Front.
Legally, the U.S. government can’t supply al-Nusra with weapons for a lot of really good reasons, mostly because they would be used to kill Americans. Lest you think this is some kind of a paperwork exercise, it isn’t. On August 8, two men were arraigned in federal court for helping al-Nusra obtain material support:
The fifteen-count indictment charges Gufran Ahmed Kauser Mohammed, 30, a naturalized United States citizen and resident of Dammam, Saudi Arabia, and Mohamed Hussein Said, 25, a Kenyan national and resident of Nairobi and Mombasa, with conspiring to provide, and attempting to provide, material support to three separately designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations, al-Qa’ida, al-Qa’ida in Iraq/al-Nusrah Front (“AQI/al-Nusrah Front”), and al-Shabaab. If convicted, each defendant faces a possible statutory maximum sentence of up to 15 years in prison for each count of the Indictment.
The indictment alleges that Mohammed and Said conspired to provide money and recruits to al-Qa’ida, AQI/al-Nusrah Front in Syria and al-Shabaab in Somalia. The charges allege that Mohammed sent a series of wire transfers to Said for the purpose of supporting al-Shabaab, and to an individual whom he believed was a fundraiser, recruiter, and supplier for al-Qa’ida and AQI/al-Nusrah Front for the purpose of supporting al-Qa’ida and AQI/al-Nusrah Front. In addition, Mohammed and Said agreed to support al-Qa’ida and AQI/al-Nusrah Front by recruiting and moving experienced al-Shabaab fighters to the conflict in Syria.
What the administration is doing is quite simple. They are arming and supplying the most effective rebel group in Syria. That the group is al-Qaeda and a terrorist group simply doesn’t matter. But they know they can’t provide weapons to them directly. So what they are doing is providing General Idriss’s group with weapons knowing they will distribute them to al-Nusra. They are certainly doing it without any effective way of verifying that weapons are not going to al-Nusra other than Idriss’s word. And given that virtually all Syrian rebel factions have condemned the U.S. labeling of al-Nusra as a terrorist group speaks volumes both to their own ideology and to the odds that they will not transfer weapons to them:
A total of 29 opposition groups, including fighting “brigades” and civilian committees, have signed a petition calling for mass demonstrations in support of Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamist group which the White House believes is an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The petition is promoting the slogan “No to American intervention, for we are all Jabhat al-Nusra” and urges supporters to “raise the Jabhat al-Nusra flag” as a “thank you”.
“These are the men for the people of Syria, these are the heroes who belong to us in religion, in blood and in revolution,” read a statement widely circulated on Syrian opposition Facebook pages.
But don’t worry. It is all under control:
In addition to boosting support for rebels under the command of Idriss, who speaks fluent English and taught at a military academy before defecting from the Syrian army last year, U.S. officials in southern Turkey are using aid to promote emerging moderate leaders in towns and villages in rebel-held areas. Across much of the north, Syrians have begun electing local councils and attempting to rebuild communities devastated by war.
Ward’s team — working primarily out of hotel lobbies [my italics — WTF? working primarily out of hotel lobbies? WTF?] — has spent the past few months studying the demographics and dynamics of communities where extremists are making inroads. Targeted U.S. aid, he said, can be used to empower emerging local leaders who are moderate and to jump-start basic services while dimming the appeal of extremists.
To review the bidding, we are giving weapons to a group which has only modest influence and even more modest presence in Syria. We are hoping that they use those arms to gain influence with other groups. Those other groups are largely jihadis and the most effective one is an al-Qaeda front group. The people we’re giving weapons to were torqued that we labeled said front group as a terrorist organization. But they’ve promised they won’t give them any of our weapons.
“We feel we’re able to get these local councils off to a good start,” said Ward, a veteran U.S. Agency for International Development official who has worked in Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan. “We vet individuals who are getting our assistance to make sure they are not affiliated with terror organizations.”
Well, so long as they are vetted, I suppose that’s okay. I mean what could go wrong?