Have We Given Up On The Syrian Rebels?


The US and Britain have suspended aid to rebels in northern Syria after learning that the warehouses holding the supplies have been taken over by jihadists. With that in mind, Dan Murphy eulogizes Obama’s Syria policy:

That it was on life support has been clear for a long time. But with the routing of the US-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) from its headquarters recently by Islamist rebel fighters, the plug should be pulled. The US can insist that its suspension of non-lethal aid (and a trickle of weapons) to the FSA via a group called the Supreme Military Council (SMC) is temporarily all it wants, but the momentum now belongs to Islamist rebels who are as hostile to US interests as they are to those of Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, Assad’s military has won a series of victories around Damascus and Syria’s second city, Aleppo, and its evolving alliance with the Lebanese Shiite military Hezbollah has strengthened both sides. …

What are the options going forward for a real US strategy in Syria – where the conflict continues to cast a shadow of destabilization over Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and to some extent Turkey?

None particularly obvious. Direct military involvement is so unlikely as to not worth being considered. A major outreach to the non-Al Qaeda Islamists, coupled with a major diplomatic effort to convince the Saudis to arm-twist their clients into compromise? Perhaps that’s a way forward – though it would mean the US is supporting a group that is pushing Sunni hegemony in Syria, a country with meaningful Christian, Shiite, and Alawite minorities. The US government’s mantra of support for democracy would seem to preclude that.

What else? No good options are left. In retrospect, the US might have held its nose and armed moderate rebels that could stand up to the Islamist armies. But the rebels friendly to US interests were never very obvious or well organized. The notion of a national level “Free Syrian Army” with meaningful command and control at anything beyond the local level has been mostly aspirational.

Bob Dreyfuss agrees:

It’s pretty much a complete and total collapse of the American efforts to back opposition to Assad, whose own forces have put together a string of military victories since the spring, retaking important strongholds and using aid from Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Shiite group, Hezbollah, to do so.

Tony Blinken, the top White House foreign policy official and former aide to Vice President Joe Biden, told a conference that the radicalization of the conflict and the strength of the Islamists might convince everyone involved from the outside to seek a peace accord. But a closer reading of Blinken’s comments seemed to indicate that he was suggesting that Russia would feel compelled to lessen its support for Assad because it fears that the Islamist rebels—who include a number of extremist Chechen fighters who’ll try to wreak havoc in Russia when they return. …

Fact is, the United States and Russia have a joint interest in suppressing and eliminating the Islamist rebels. And that’s it. One danger is that Saudi Arabia, which is apoplectic about the impending US-Iran accord and which is equally angry about the US-Russia diplomacy over Syria, may be pouring funds into the non–Al Qaeda Islamist radicals, such as the Islamist Front, just to give the United States a black eye. If so, Washington had better read the riot act to Riyadh.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon faults Obama’s inconsistency for the disarray:

All along, President Obama’s hesitancy has called into question what, exactly, American policy is and was in Syria. In the summer of 2011, Obama said that the  “time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Yet, the actual policy of the U.S. in Syria has looked more like containment than regime change. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey this year publicly recommended using the military to keep the conflict from spreading outside of Syria, but not to intervene with direct military force. The administration’s decision this fall to abort military strikes in favor of negotiating a deal with Assad to destroy his chemical weapons stockpiles only furthered that impression.

“It is not at all clear what our objective is,” says Amb. Dennis Ross, who served as special advisor on Iran for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “Without an objective you can’t identify what are the appropriate means to mobilize. We don’t have any leverage.”

Ross sees our engagement in Syria evolving into a counterterrorism policy:

For his part, Ross says that the threat of foreign fighters plus the desire to avoid boots on the ground make counterterrorism an increasingly possible path. “We have been very reluctant to use force. CT means many different things, including training those forces we can support. It also means drones. We do that in Yemen against al-Qaeda. Are we headed toward that in Syria? Could be.”

But that again, Ross argued, raises the question of what exactly is America’s aim in Syria? Is it to keep the country together and fulfill the June 2012 Geneva Declaration’s goal of creating a “transitional governing body” that “would exercise full executive powers?” Or is it simply to protect the United States from the potential threat posed by extremist fighters energized by the battle to oust Assad? “CT is still a means, not an objective,” he said.

Update from a reader:

It just amazes me that we’re still seeing articles basically trying to figure out how exactly the US screwed up the whole Syria problem. Because that implies that we actually at some point had a real possibility at deciding how it would turn out. Why anybody would think that after the experiences of the past decade is just unfathomable to me. We waltzed into two different nearby countries and basically ran them for years, and we still couldn’t do much to dictate the conditions of those countries. If that sort of engagement doesn’t give us a real say about things, than why should we expect that a lighter intervention would be any more successful?

For various long-term and complicated reasons, the region is a giant political/sectarian/religious mess being fought over by a bunch of people who could not care less about the interests or desires of the US. Nothing we can do will change that. More decisiveness by Obama wouldn’t have changed that. Sure, we could go in and remove Assad if we really wanted, but even that wouldn’t give us much of a say on how the country ended up being run in the long term.

There were never any good options for the US here. There was no winning strategy waiting to be discovered. People just need to accept that things happen in the world that even the might US military can’t control.


(Photo: Fighters loyal to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) pose with their weapons in a location on the outskirts of Idlib in northwestern Syria on June 18, 2012. By D. Leal Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)