America Not Training Syria’s Rebels Isn’t “Failure”; It’s Policy

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) July 13, 2015

Syrian rebels

President Obama gave a speech on Monday about the progress of the United States-led military campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) in which he said that America would “do more to train and equip the moderate opposition in Syria.” This is a promise that has been made repeatedly made and repeatedly broken. The President’s strategy of détente with Clerical Iran has given Syria to Tehran as a sphere of influence—which precludes the U.S. building up a viable alternative to both ISIS and the murderous Assad regime, which has been effectively under Iran’s control since late 2012.

After six months of almost totally peaceful protest, Syria’s protest movement took up arms to defend itself in certain areas in September 2011, and by December a nationwide armed revolt was underway.

In January 2012, Qatar and Saudi Arabia responded to Iran’s already-deep intervention in Syria with weapons and Hizballah, by beginning to ship weapons to the rebels. The CIA were involved by the summer of 2012 to try to steer weapons away from the more extreme elements of the gathering insurgency. The U.S. said in June 2013 that a “consequence” of Assad using chemical weapons would be the first provision of “military support” to the rebellion, but this lethal support only started arriving in September 2013—after a massive Ghouta chemical atrocity.

At West Point in May 2014, Obama announced that he would “ramp up” support for the Syrian opposition as “the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators.” The desultory CIA-run covert program was to be supplemented with a Pentagon-run overt “Title Ten” program. Very little happened.

In September 2014, Obama gave an ambiguous declaration of war against ISIS, which again included a promise of “ramped up” support to the opposition. But this time the President spoke of an empowered opposition as “the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL”. Obama spoke of the need for a “political solution” and Assad’s legitimacy being at an end, but the removal of Assad—America’s formal policy since August 2011—was now a matter for the Syrians, and American power was not to be leant to that end. Days later a bill was passed in Congress authorizing a program to train 15,000 rebels over three years—but only to fight ISIS.

A grand total of sixty rebels are currently being trained by America. Why it was expected that the rebels would abandon their fight against Assad—whom they are after all rebelling against in defence of their families—to become the U.S.’s Arab JSOC force is not clear. Moreover, it biased the U.S.’s recruitment pool towards those whose interest in the rebellion is mercenary.

There is good reason to believe that the failure of the Pentagon program specifically, and the more general failure to build up a powerful nationalist opposition force, is a feature not a bug of the Obama administration’s policy. The President needs to continue the formal pretence of assisting the rebellion for domestic political reasons and to placate allies, but in Syria the U.S. has long been effectively aligned with the Assad regime, which has transitioned from ally to puppet of the Iranian theocracy, and this has gotten more flagrant over time.

The most notable indication that the U.S. had rescinded its regime-change policy in Syria and was moving into alignment with Assad was the “non-strike incident” of 2013, when Obama stood back from his promised airstrikes to punish Assad for the massive violation of his chemical weapons “redline“. Obama instead accepted a Russian offer to call off the strikes in exchange for Assad surrendering his chemical weapons of mass destruction, getting Obama out of something he clearly did not want to do.

Obama’s refusal to strike at Assad was “devastating” to the moderate, Western-aligned rebels, empowering Islamists, gave Assad a license to kill with conventional weapons, made the dictator a partner in disarmament, and let Russia back in to the region. For that exorbitant price, Assad has not and will not disarm, and has even taken to using chlorine gas, the original chemical weapon.

Other than President Obama’s well-known aversion to the use of force, Obama did not want to upset Iran. To make the “interim” nuclear deal with Iran in November 2013, the U.S. had been having secret contacts with Iran since at least July 2012—note: before the “moderate” Hassan Rowhani was “elected”—and thus did not want to get into a shooting war with Iran in Syria, which was eminently possible since Iran had virtually seized control of the Syrian State.

In late 2012, to rescue Assad, Iran formed the National Defence Force, a sectarian militia that has more-or-less replaced the army, and orchestrated a Shi’ite jihad that moved tens of thousands of foreign Shi’a holy warriors, some of them U.S.-designated terrorists, into Syria to defend the regime—without any protest from America. Indeed, at around the time, Obama refused the suggestion of virtually his entire Cabinet to arm the Syrian rebels who could counter these Shi’a militiamen.

In September 2014, the U.S. began airstrikes in Syria that targeted ISIS, allowing Assad to perform an “economy of force“: Assad left the U.S. to attack ISIS in the east and focused on the moderates in the west. Assad has worked very hard to make extremists the face of the insurgency—for example between ISIS’ emergence and late 2014, Assad directed just six percent of his airstrikes against ISIS—and to present this as a binary choice between the dictator or the takfiris; this is a lie, but many believe it and it has worked to make the U.S. effectively Assad’s (Iran’s) air force in Syria.

The U.S. airstrikes in Syria have also hit Jabhat an-Nusra’s “Khorasan Group” and Ahrar a-Sham. Hitting Nusra was one thing: it is the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. Hitting Ahrar, despite the Qaeda ties of its leadership and battlefield alliance with Nusra, is quite another. Ahrar has no stated ambitions beyond Syria’s borders; for the U.S. to strike non-transnationalist insurgents crossed a line that put all rebel groups, especially the Islamists, potentially in the line of fire, sowing further divisions among Assad’s enemies.

Attacking anti-Assad forces other than transnational Salafi-jihadists, while doing nothing to stop Assad’s air attacks on civilians, despite U.S. jets operating in the same battle space as Assad, makes no sense unless the U.S. has sided with Assad, and on the ground in Syria and the region this is how U.S. actions are seen. The U.S. also stood aside when rebel units it had previously supplied were destroyed by al-Qaeda: again, unless Obama has given Syria to Iran as a sphere of influence—ergo the U.S. cannot have a force to challenge Iran’s power—it is difficult to see why this was allowed to happen.

The U.S. refuses to impose a no-fly zone because this would “constitute an act of war against the Assad regime,” despite purportedly being committed to Assad’s overthrow. Obama will not even commit to protecting the rebel army he is training to fight ISIS from regime air attacks. The U.S. has let it be known that its Syria policy is hostage to Iran because Iran might respond to moves against Assad by murdering U.S. soldiers currently working alongside Iranian proxy militias in Iraq. This all furthers the impression—recognition—that Assad has a U.S. security guarantee.

President Obama’s desire to reorient U.S. policy into a partnership with Iran against ISIS has been expressed in letters written to Iran’s Supreme Leader that openly propose such a partnership—if Iran signs a nuclear accord. The problem with this is that the spread of Iran’s influence empowers ISIS by encouraging Sunnis to look on ISIS as a shield against sectarian vengeance.

The heart of the matter is: to defeat ISIS, the U.S. has to be committed to Assad’s ouster. Syria is ISIS’ spiritual capital and its gateway to the outside world, dooming the Iraq-first strategy. The cross-border Sunni uprising that ISIS is trying to hijack has its roots in the policies of sectarian, Iranian-underwritten governments in Damascus and Baghdad. It is illogical to think that the Assad regime or the Iranian-controlled Shi’a militias in Iraq are the answer to a problem they have caused—or that they want to be, or even can be.

Iran simply does not have the manpower to rule over all the Sunnis from Baghdad to Aleppo, but nor does Iran have the desire to pacify the Sunni areas by defeating ISIS. With control over the strategic areas of southern Iraq, Baghdad, the populated western corridor in Syria, and Lebanon, plus friendly relations with Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran has little interest in the Sunni Arab zones. Iran has the decentralized and unthreatening neighbours it always wanted, helplessly dependent on Tehran which can point to the Takfiri Caliphate bearing down on the Alawi- and Shi’a-led governments as the only alternative to Iranian colonization, and the lifeline to Hizballah is kept open to ensure Iran’s leverage against Israel and global terrorism capabilities, which the Islamic Republic has used to wage war on the West since its inception.

Local Sunnis are the only force capable of inflicting lasting defeats on ISIS. This has been demonstrated by the Syrian rebellion since it began its offensive against ISIS in January 2014, and by the Iraqi tribes during the 2006-07 Awakening. This is common sense. ISIS operates in the Sunni Arab, and above all tribal, areas of Syria and Iraq. If local Sunnis are given the power to take responsibility for their security, they are going to keep ISIS out. But if Sunnis are presented with the choice of ISIS or Iran dominating their areas, they are going to tacitly support ISIS.

Put simply: more Iran means more ISIS. A pity then that the coming nuclear agreement will cede Syria to Iran as an imperial province.

11 thoughts on “America Not Training Syria’s Rebels Isn’t “Failure”; It’s Policy

  1. Democratic Revolution, Syrian Style

    After a lot of thought, I came to reject the “Obama loves Iran” thesis. I think Iran could disappear from the face of the planet tomorrow and he’d still refuse to get involved in serious efforts to oust Assad. He simply refuses to get deeply military and politically engaged in an open-ended conflict in the region since there is no discernible exit or exit strategy from such conflicts. Just look at how ridiculously he is trying to wage the war on ISIS on the Iraqi side of the ledger — air spotters aren’t even embedded with ISF units. Do you really think Iran gives half a shit if U.S. personnel accompany ISF units to the front lines of the fight? Of course not. But Obama does. He will do as little as possible for as long as possible until his wretched presidency is over. Godspeed! — for the sake of the Syrian, Iraqi, and all peoples.

    1. KyleWOrton

      I don’t think Obama “loves” Iran; I think he sees it as his way out of the region. If he wants to pull the U.S. out, something has to replace it. The Gulfies can’t project power and he sees them (probably rightly) as a dying system, but Iran has a dynamic middle-class and structures for waging war abroad. Obama never cared over-much for democracy but he thinks Iran might be able to bring stability. I think that’s a bad bet but this idea is not unique to him. I do think without the Iran consideration, Obama would have lobbed a few cruise missiles at Damascus in 2013, and we’d be in a whole different world if that happened rather than this weird situation where we’re respecting a sovereignty that the Assad regime does not in fact exercise and allowing our Syria policy to be (literally) hostage to Iran because of Iraq (which in that alternative future might well have averted a calamity on this scale).

      1. Democratic Revolution, Syrian Style

        Unfortunately that doesn’t explain Obama’s reluctance to do what’s really necessary to fight ISIS in Iraq. The reason Obama didn’t hit Assad in 2013 is because he was trying to avoid the “whole different world” you speak of.

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