Obama’s speech on Wednesday night laying out an alleged strategy for dealing with ISIS included a proposal for arming fighters from Syrian opposition groups. This is a longstanding dream of the administration. Many ideas bring with them negatives. Rarely do you confront an idea that is not only bad in concept but one with no good points to offset it. Fortunately, training a surrogate army requires Congressional approval. Congress should decline.
A cautionary tale
Murdered US journalist Steven Sotloff was sold to Islamic State terrorists by “so-called moderate rebels,” and the Obama administration “could have done more” to save him, a family spokesman said Tuesday.
“For the first time, we can say Steven was sold at the [Syrian] border,” spokesman Barak Barfi told CNN.
He said the rebels tipped off ISIS that Sotloff had entered the country, and those terrorists then grabbed him.
“We believe these so-called moderate rebels that people want our administration to support — one of them sold him probably for something between $25,000 and $50,000, and that was the reason he was captured,” Barfi said, citing “sources on the ground.”
We know little about the groups we are arming…. and what we do know is not good
From the beginning we’ve known very little about the Syrian opposition forces. Our contacts with them are at the command level and we have little idea of what they are like in the field. Their conduct in five-star hotels differs markedly with what one finds in the field and until we have Special Forces or CIA paramilitaries embedded in Syrian opposition units we will continue to operate in the dark. All evidence tends to indicate that the “moderate” and “vetted” groups work hand in glove with al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. From the New York Times U.S. Pins Hope on Syrian Rebels With Loyalties All Over the Map:
President Obama’s determination to train Syrian rebels to serve as ground troops against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria leaves the United States dependent on a diverse group riven by infighting, with no shared leadership and with hard-line Islamists as its most effective fighters.
After more than three years of civil war, there are hundreds of militias fighting President Bashar al-Assad — and one another. Among them, even the more secular forces have turned to Islamists for support and weapons over the years, and the remaining moderate rebels often fight alongside extremists like the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
“You are not going to find this neat, clean, secular rebel group that respects human rights and that is waiting and ready because they don’t exist,” said Aron Lund, a Syria analyst who edits the Syria in Crisis blog for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It is a very dirty war and you have to deal with what is on offer.”
This is not news. Last year when the administration made a push to arm the Syrian opposition, an effort we opposed, this was the status of the Syrian opposition:
Jonathan Spyer says the moderate rebels in Syria the Obama administration has been touting are really Muslim Brotherhood-types who adhere to an Islamist ideology.
Spyer should know. An academic who lives in Israel and studies the Middle East, he has traveled to and through Syrian rebel-controlled territory, reporting on what he saw for various publications. Asked by The Daily Caller to respond to a much-cited Wall Street Journal article by Elizabeth O’Bagy, which claimed “[m]oderate opposition forces … continue to lead the fight against the Syrian regime,” Spyer said, “I can only speak regarding my own experiences and my own knowledge.”
“Undoubtedly outside of Syria, and in the Syrian opposition structures, there are civilian political activists and leaders who are opposed to al-Qaida and opposed to Islamism,” Spyer explained to TheDC in an email interview. “There are also civilian activists and structures within the country which are opposed to al-Qaida and Islamism. But when one looks at the armed rebel groups, one finds an obvious vast majority there who are adherents of Islamism of one kind or another — stretching from Muslim Brotherhood-type formations all the way across to groups openly aligned with al-Qaida central and with al-Zawahiri.”
Why are we training fighters in Syria when the major front is Iraq?
The only good answer to this is that the administration is still pursuing its objective of overthrowing Assad and using the attack on ISIS as the backdoor to achieve that.
The Syrian opposition effort is focused on defeating Assad
From the New York Times article:
Even if Congress approves the Pentagon plan, as now appears likely after Mr. Obama’s speech on Wednesday, military planners said it would be months before the fighters, to be trained at a base in Saudi Arabia, would be battle-ready.
Fatigue from three years of war has left most of those forces exhausted and short of resources. Since pushing ISIS from parts of northern Syria early this year, Syria’s rebels have few military advances to point to and in many areas have lost ground, to Mr. Assad’s forces and to ISIS. But in many places they remain busy fighting Mr. Assad and are not eager to redirect their energies to ISIS — even while many say they hate the group.
“The priority is the regime,” Ziad Obeid, who heads a small rebel faction in Aleppo, said through Skype. “But it is ISIS that is preventing any progress on the ground, so we have to get rid of it, too.”
Still, he added, he would not pull fighters from battles with the government to fight ISIS. “People on the fronts with the regime can’t leave to fight ISIS,” he said. “That won’t work.”
Did I mention we don’t know very much about the people we’ll be training:
From the Lebanon Daily Star:
Free Syrian Army commanders around Arsal vehemently deny any involvement in recent clashes with the Lebanese security forces, but admit to cooperating with Islamist groups in military operations along the Syrian-Lebanese border.
“We are collaborating with the Islamic State and the Nusra Front by attacking the Syrian Army’s gatherings in … Qalamoun,” said Bassel Idriss, the commander of an FSA-aligned rebel brigade.
This is not an anomaly. Via PJ Tatler Vetted Moderate’ Free Syrian Army Commander Admits Alliance with ISIS, Confirms PJ Media Reporting you can view an extensive list of open source documented collaborations between various factions of the Free Syrian Army, the people we support, and ISIS.
I thought we had a coalition?
When Obama announced his broad based coalition of ten nations of which three have said “no thanks” to participation as a contrast to Bush going it alone with 48 nations in 2003 there was an implicit assumption that this coalition was going to do something other than hold our coat. The fact that none of our partners, especially the Turks have signed up to take on the training mission should be a warning sign. Back to the New York Times article:
Even as they line up to support Mr. Obama’s strategy against ISIS, some European allies remain skeptical about the efficacy of arming the Syrian rebels. Germany, for instance, has been arming and training Kurdish pesh merga forces in Iraq, but has resisted doing the same for any groups in Syria — partly out of fear that the weapons could end up in the hands of ISIS or other radical groups.
“We can’t really control the final destination of these arms,” said Peter Wittig, the German ambassador to the United States.
The approach — training and arming local fighters — has also not been effective in other arenas, whether Iraq, where the military melted away when ISIS attacked, or in Mali, where forces trained in counterterrorism switched sides to join Islamist fighters.
Like the announcement of airstrikes Wednesday night that resulted it Turkey placing Incirlik airbase off limits to combat missions and Germany and Britain saying they would not participate, this gives the impression of yet another part of the plan our “coalition” partners want nothing to do with.
There is no command authority to direct the fighters we will be training
Training fighters operating without a central command authority rarely turns out well. As has been documented, we have marginalized the purported central command of the Syrian opposition:
North of Aleppo, the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army is battling the Islamic State terror group over a vital supply route.
In Washington, the Obama administration is groping for a strategy to deal with a force that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says is “beyond anything we have ever seen.”
But in this south Turkish city, in the office of the chief of staff of the rebel force, not much is astir, and the atmosphere is funereal.
This should be the hour of coordination and brainstorming between the U.S., its allies in Europe and the Middle East and the leadership of the appointed West-backed fighters. But according to Gen. Abdul-Ilah al Bashir, the FSA’s embittered chief of staff, they just aren’t talking.
Since December, when Islamist fighters overran the arms warehouses of the moderate rebel group, the covert U.S. program has been working directly with individual commanders, leaving the leadership here high and dry. Twelve to 14 commanders receive military and nonlethal aid this way in northern Syria and about 60 smaller groups are recipients in southern Syria, al Bashir said. They report to the CIA.
“The leadership of the FSA is American,” said the veteran officer, who defected from the Syrian army two years ago and won respect for leading rebel forces in southern Syria. “The Americans are completely marginalizing the military staff. Not even nonlethal aid comes through this office.”
U.S. officials acknowledge the dysfunction, but blame al Bashir for keeping too low a profile among commanders and for not fully staffing his office. They say his title is a “business card.” Yet the failure to establish a good working relationship also reflects an ambivalence within the U.S. government that goes straight to the top.
What happens when we win?
What is the plan for demobilizing these fighters when, at some point, ISIS goes away? There is no command structure. There is no oversight. What we can expect is that these fighters will stay in the field fighting Assad and each other.
This is a bad idea
We are on the verge of training people who are politically indistinguishable from al-Qaeda to carry out a proxy war against the Syrian regime. We have no way of directing them to fight ISIS, should they even be inclined to do so. We have no control over them in the field even though we know they have and they will commit atrocities and participate in ethnic cleansing. We have no way to demobilize these people when we no longer need them. This is not merely a bad idea, it is a bad idea that is devoid of any merit whatsoever. Is it a bad idea to set the stage for an extended war for no larger objective than killing Islamists and destabilizing a large section of the Middle East? I think not but YMMV. If this is the objective, Obama should own it rather than setting it into motion for future presidents to deal with.