Desperately Seeking Moderates, Ctd

In a column from last week, Fareed Zakaria recommends limiting our Syria strategy to containment, emphasizing the unlikelihood that American power can resolve the country’s civil war. He stresses the difficulty of finding reliable partners among the Syrian rebels, a topic the Dish has covered repeatedly. Fareed concludes:

The crucial, underlying reason for the violence in Iraq and Syria is a Sunni revolt against governments in Baghdad and Damascus that they view as hostile, apostate regimes. That revolt, in turn, has been fueled by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, each supporting its own favorite Sunni groups, which has only added to the complexity. On the other side, Iran has supported the Shiite and Alawite regimes, ensuring that this sectarian struggle is also regional. The political solution, presumably, is some kind of power-sharing arrangement in those two capitals. But this is not something that the United States can engineer in Syria. It tried in Iraq, but despite 170,000 troops, tens of billions of dollars and David Petraeus’s skillful leadership, the deals Petraeus brokered started unraveling within months of his departure, well before American troops had left.

Pushing back on Fareed’s claims, Michael Weiss and Faysal Itani make a forceful argument for greater engagement with the Free Syrian Army, pointing out that containment is what the Obama administration is already doing – and it isn’t working. They contest the “longstanding and intellectually disingenuous complaint” that the Syrian opposition has been taken over by al-Qaeda affiliates, leaving few “moderates” for the US to support:

All too often, observers of the Syria conflict employ a shallow, decontextualized approach to appraising fighters on the ground. YouTube video proclamations designed to drum up badly needed funds from Gulf Arab states, to pressure or blackmail the West into offering adequate support, or to triangulate between and amongst competitive rebel interests, are given to be copper-bottom proof of a brigade or battalion’s permanent ideological coloration. In reality, fighters migrate fluidly to and from ideologically divergent camps; we have spoken with rebels who have gone from nationalist to Islamist to outright jihadist alignments, all based on the need for ammunition, food or money. ISIL, for instance, pays its fighters $400 per month; most FSA units pay theirs around $100, according to FSA spokesman Hussam al-Marie. As a matter of simple economy, this disparity could be altered overnight. The perception, too, of who is “winning” versus who is “losing” on the battlefield also drives recruitment efforts, which is why, following ISIL’s seizure of Mosul last June, its numbers skyrocketed.

David Kenner focuses on the Syrian opposition coalition in exile in Turkey, which in theory would take responsibility for governing areas freed from both ISIS and the Assad regime. It’s currently having trouble holding itself together:

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?”