Just days before the Russian military commenced official operations in Syria, Presidents Obama and Putin delivered opposing speeches to the United Nations General Assembly. President Obama denounced the imminent Russian action. If the US and Russia are both swimming in muddied moral waters, we must at least presume that US foreign policy both presents clear goals in Syria and the region at large, and that it has a practicable plan for implementing those goals. Russia pitched its support for the Assad regime with the rationale that Assad and the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) represented the best and most coherent force in Syria to spearhead the war against ISIS, and that defeating ISIS and radical Islamists in Syria was the singular priority of a Russian Syrian intervention. US policy conversely demands the end of both ISIS and the Assad regime, and so far in Syria has depended on the use of various regional proxies to further these dual agendas.
The grim reality is that the current American stance toward the conflict, of sifting out the absolute smallest contingent of truly “moderate,” anti-Assad and anti-Islamic State militants in Syria in order to train and supply them and start, effectively, a new insurgency based around a whitewashed secular democratic ideology, is a complete failure. The US has variously sought to oppose the Islamic State in Syria through non-government proxies, primarily the Free Syrian Army rebels and Kurdish militants.
A Relationship of Convenience
The Kurdish militant forces in Iraq and Syria have proved to be possibly the most effective anti-Islamic State force in the region on a pound-for-pound basis. Despite their local effectiveness in defending the de facto regions of Kurdistan, and even with direct supplies and support from the United States, they are unlikely to directly engage the Islamic State itself. Former White House advisor Charles Dunn doubts “that the KRG’s (Kurdish Regional Government) armed forces are capable of, or, especially, willing to take the fight far south of their borders [but are] capable of defending their own territory.”
American support for and alliance with the Kurds is of only nominal value however as US ally and NATO member Turkey engages in ongoing hostile activity against Kurdish groups. During the now-legendary defense of Kobani last December, Turkey blocked the passage of Kurdish supplies and reinforcements across the Turkish-Syrian border. When pressed to aid the Kurdish defense, President Erdogan explained that “the Turkish price for rescuing Kobani and acting against Isis would have been three measures aimed, not at Isis, but at displacing President Bashar al-Assad […] In effect, [Erdogan said] that given a choice between Isis [sic] and Assad, he would chose the former.” Even now that Turkey has given its grudging pledge to directly strike at IS forces it continues to strike at Syrian Kurds, launching up to a hundred times as many airstrikes against Kurdish PKK as against IS forces. While Turkey may have been pressured into allowing the US greater use of its airstrips for American strikes against IS forces, Turkey and the Kurds seem more committed to combatting each other than to taking the fight to Islamic State-controlled territory.
In his general assembly address Obama claimed that “we also know that they [ISIS] gain adherents because of a poisonous ideology”. What we also know is that they have gained troops, if not ideological adherents, thanks to the fatally unreliable aid of the United States.
Contrary to Washington’s official narrative, American support for the Syrian protesters-cum-rebels stretches back to the dawn of the Syrian uprisings. Leaked documents from private intelligence firm Stratfor reveal that by late 2011 there were already Western special operations forces working with the Syrian opposition on reconnaissance and training, even though at the time there wasn’t “much of a Free Syrian Army to train […] anyway”. In the long term the special forces teams would “‘hypothetically’ [. . .] commit guerrilla attacks, assassination campaigns, try to break the back of the Alawite [Assad] forces, elicit collapse from within.”
Initially, the US would only publicly commit to supplying non-lethal aid to the anti-Assad forces colloquially lumped together as the Free Syrian Army. While the US and major western nations pledged only non-lethal supplies and support, it was widely reported that regional allies such as “[Saudi Arabia] and Qatar are [known to supply] lethal weaponry to the opposition,” including weaponry that experts “told McClatchy […] could not have been given to the rebels without the approval of the Obama administration.” Meanwhile, American agents coordinated efforts between sites in Syria, Ankara, and Qatar, to provide rebels with both tactical and weapons training before sending them back to aid and organize the Syrian resistance.
These American efforts have been directed officially toward vetted FSA militants, supposedly free of Islamist ideology. It’s worth bearing in mind that before establishing itself as a nascent terror-state, ISIS’s presence in Syria was as a single component in the broad anti-Assad coalition. Contrary to the broad portrayal of the rebels as simply ‘secular’ or ‘extremist’, anti-Assad forces have always spanned a broad ideological spectrum from moderate democrats through to the radical Salafist forces behind the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. As Foreign Policy writes, groups using superficially religious slogans and terminology are not necessarily affiliated with Islamic extremism:
“a very large portion of rebel fighters in Syria would identify themselves as "Islamists" fighting a "jihad." But contrary to popular Western interpretation, this does .not make them "extremists" and certainly not "al Qaeda." As has often been the case in complex and bloody sub-state conflicts, those involved — both directly (insurgents) and indirectly (civilians) — often turn to religion as a support mechanism. The rapid proliferation of Islamic names for many of the original Free Syrian Army (FSA) units back in 2011 illustrates this clearly.”
Even within ISIS fighters are not universally motivated by religious extremism. As Karen Armstrong points out:
“[F]ew of the young recruits are motivated either by Wahhabism or by more traditional Muslim ideals. In 2008, MI5’s behavioural science unit noted that, “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.” A significant proportion of those convicted of terrorism offences since the 9/11 attacks have been non-observant, or are self-taught[...]”
Keeping Your Enemies Closer
It’s hard to imagine how to vet rebel forces when even within a single brigade there may not have ideological cohesion. In a war where the rebels seem to spend as much time fighting each other as fighting Assad, the ideology of individual members is insignificant next to the plasticity of coalition allegiances. Rather than coherent and integrated armies the rebel forces are partially composed of local brigades, variously formed to unseat Assad or simply to militarize and defend a town or region. As the tides of battle shift and supply lines run dry or are broken brigades change allegiance for political as well as practical reasons.
Even brigades within the American-recognized FSA have gone over to ISIS, either through open ISIS intimidation or a lack of adequate support from the FSA, the US, and other allies. Western military aid is seen as inadequate by the hard-pressed rebels: “[Syrian] fighters told Ali that they cannot win without anti-aircraft missiles[…] ‘When I saw there was no training in anti-aircraft missiles, my morale was destroyed,’ one fighter told Ali.” Even in early 2015, recipients of U.S. lethal aid told IBTimes, “[T]he U.S. set them up for failure. “The U.S. support was not enough for the rebels in the North to be strong and defeat the Islamic groups,” said Oussama Abu Zayd […] adding that many moderate rebels defected to extremist organizations because they had more money. “They have millions of dollars from donors.””
In September of 2014 the White House received authority to “recruit and train about 5,000 of the moderate rebel fighters.” By the middle of 2015 only a single unit of 54 fighters had completed training with the program; this group was handily dispatched by al-Nusra while returning from Turkey. In September, shortly before the Russian intervention began, another group of US-trained rebels was reported to have surrendered US-provided supplies to al-Qaeda affiliates in exchange for safe passage through contested territory.
The High Road
Burying the announcement in a pre-Columbus Day press release, the administration quietly ended the official rebel training program. Attempting to explain the program’s failure, under secretary of defense Christine Wormuth said, “There are many, many individuals in Syria who want to fight the regime […] We were focused on identifying individuals who wanted to fight ISIL. And that’s a pretty challenging recruiting mission.” The US’ failure then was to expect to find a spare army in Syria to set against ISIS’ western front, in a country whose civil war was initially premised on resistance to the Assad regime.
For close to four years American policy toward the Syrian crisis has rested primarily on a rebel group that functionally didn’t exist until after America and its allies began supplying covert aid to the uprising. According to interviews with 50 former fighters, the top three motivations for quitting the FSA were a lack of discipline and a lack of teamwork within the coalition, and the feeling that there was no longer any hope of victory for the coalition. Even the CIA’s own internal reports questioned the historical value of hands-off support for friendly insurgencies like the FSA. While simultaneously demanding both the removal of Assad and the defeat of ISIS, US strategy has focused on nominal support for disorganized militant groups that have proven incapable of achieving either goal.
American policy in Syria is constrained by politics both in the US and abroad. Bound by contradictory alliances to regional powers and past policy commitments, and politically unable to commit to direct intervention, the US finds itself forced to maintain involvement in the conflict even while it appears incapable of any action that could induce a resolution to either the Assad or ISIS dilemmas, let alone both at once. The question then is what compels US involvement in Syria and in the broader fight against ISIS, and what stands in the way of a truly decisive Syrian intervention? In part 3 we’ll look at how American goals in the region have shaped the conflict and potentially committed the US to unraveling the steel-clad Gordian knot of the Syrian civil war.