America Abandons the Syrian Revolution

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 14, 2015


In the last week, two events have provided further evidence that the United States has effectively sided with the Assad regime in Syria, acting effectively as the regime’s air force, and that America’s alliance with Assad is part of the broader policy of détente with Iran, facilitated by the nuclear deal, which has ceded Syria to Iran as a sphere of influence.

First, the Syrian fighters produced by the American train-and-equip program entered Syria, and it ended in disaster. I have previously detailed the way in which the Obama administration has repeatedly promised it is getting serious about supporting the Syrian rebellion and then not followed through. Suffice it to say, after nearly a year of recruitment, the $500-million program that was supposed to train 15,000 rebels over three years, sent fifty-four “New Syrian Forces” (NSF) into Syria on July 30, and Jabhat an-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, dismantled them over four days. The U.S. did at least conduct airstrikes to try to rescue its proxy this time, but to no avail.

That the train-and-equip program was a going-through-the-motions exercise, to appease domestic criticism and Arab allies, while not intended to have any actual effect—the “Syria two-step,” as Michael Doran calls it—was obvious from the fact that the NSF was only meant to target the Islamic State (ISIS). Employing rebels on condition they stop being rebels was never a very good plan. It is hard to believe that anybody is really surprised there were so few Syrian rebels prepared to quit their fight against Assad—an explicit condition of the American program—and become America’s Arab JSOC force. Why the U.S. would want rebels to quit the fight against a dictator whose ouster is official policy is a question with really only one answer.

This same answer is suggested by the fact that the failure of the Syrian rebels, a consequence of inadequate American support, is being used to argue for even less help to the Syrian rebellion. This has been seen before, when U.S. jets watched as Nusra destroyed the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front and then collapsed Harakat Hazm just weeks after the U.S. had severely cut Hazm’s funding, and in the aftermath the U.S. declared that this showed their decision not to back SRF and Hazm was right since the groups were obviously no good.

A cynic would think allowing the nationalist rebels to wither until Assad/Iran can be portrayed as the only “pragmatic” anti-ISIS option, since all the insurgents are ISIS, was the feature, not the bug, of the policy.

The impression that the U.S. never seriously intended to form even an anti-ISIS force out of the rebels was furthered by the news that the U.S. considered the loss of the NSF no big deal because:

[A] better force had emerged—already trained, competent, organized—that posed little risk of abandoning the fight or worse yet, switching sides. They are the … YPG

YPG are the Kurdish “People’s Protection Units,” run by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is a designated terrorist organization. Despite much U.S. obfuscation, the leadership of the PKK’s branches in Turkey, Syria, and Iran is the same. Given the political background of the PYD, it is true that members of the YPG are unlikely to join ISIS, though the background of some PYD’s leaders in Communist and chauvinist extremism, and murky connections to the regime, present problems of their own.

While the NSF program—despite its utter failure—is to be formally retained for political reasons, the U.S. had begun to turn away from the NSF and toward the YPG nearly from the beginning of NSF last fall. After ISIS began its infamous siege of Kobani in mid-September, the U.S. initially hesitated. The U.S. strategy was (and is) Iraq-first and the U.S. did not (and does not) want any deep involvement in Syria. But for political reasons, Kobani became a testing ground on all sides, despite its lack of strategic value. The U.S. directed the overwhelming majority of its airstrikes in Syria into Kobani until ISIS was finally driven back in March. Since then the YPG has become the only force on the ground in Syria—until the introduction of the NSF—that can directly call in American airstrikes.

There is a case for helping the YPG defend the Kurdish areas and, given that so few options remain, deputizing the YPG as an anti-ISIS ground force. But the YPG’s capacity and willingness is limited, and supporting the YPG to the exclusion of Syria’s rebels is a recipe for disaster, even in the narrow aim of destroying ISIS.

The narrative of the YPG as the most effective—perhaps the only effective—ground force against ISIS inside Syria is mistaken in at least three ways:

  1. The rebellion made more progress against ISIS, with much less weaponry and zero American support, during the offensive of January 2014. Latakia, Idlib, and large parts of western Aleppo are still clear of ISIS, and more of Aleppo, Deir Ezzor, Homs, Hama, and even (temporarily) parts of Raqqa were cleared. The poorly-equipped rebels succumbed to exhaustion after six months: ISIS conquered central Iraq in June 2014 and the influx of weapons that ISIS confiscated from the Iraqi army into eastern Syria finally broke the rebels’ resistance. ISIS took Deir Ezzor and secured itself in Raqqa, eastern Aleppo and southern Hasaka.
  1. It massively understates the role of American airpower. Not only has the U.S. intervention in Syria effectively protected YPG-held areas from the regime’s air attacks, unlike in rebel-held areas which have been prevented from setting up an attractive alternative form of governance by the relentless regime bombardment, but between September 2014 and January 2015, the U.S. directed three-quarters of her airstrikes into Syria at Kobani. Kobani was destroyed but the YPG kept ISIS out, as almost any force could have done with that degree of firepower. The YPG are motivated against ISIS, but only in defending Rojava, where there is the well-justified perception of a genocidal threat. But that regionalism is also a drawback:
  1. The YPG has limits to what it can and will do, and stretching those limits damages the broader fight against ISIS. The YPG has little incentive to expend its resources in occupation of Arab territory to keep ISIS out. Encouraging/helping YPG to extend into Sunni Arab areas is going to stir antagonism. Syria’s Sunni Arabs—the backbone of the rebellion—do not want to be dominated by the PYD, any more than they want to be dominated by Assad’s sectarian forces or Iran’s Shi’ite militias. All are seen as foreign occupiers bent on an ethno-sectarian program of demographic alteration. Some Sunni Arabs would see ISIS as the lesser evil if the alternative is the YPG. This is a needless blunder when a sustainable solution is at hand: empower the Sunni rebels to take care of security in their own areas. Beyond Syria, supporting the YPG solely splits the international coalition: Turkey’s behaviour with regard to ISIS and the YPG might be inexcusable, but it is still a fact that has to be reckoned with, and to gain Ankara’s help requires not helping only forces in Syria that Turkey considers enemies.

The YPG cannot be expected to liberate all of Syria from ISIS, which means America needs some Sunni Arab rebels onside, and that cannot happen if the U.S. is perceived as supporting Assad/Iran and Kurdish separatists. The U.S.’s support to the nationalist rebels has been woefully inadequate, while most other actors who are now powerful in Syria have had a constant stream of meaningful external support. Even assuming the outcome of this policy—the weakening of the nationalist rebels and the strengthening of Iran in Syria—is not the desired outcome, the policy as it stands is having that effect and is going to ensure ISIS is around for a very long time.

The second event was an American airstrike on August 11 in Atma, which targeted an ISIS “staging area,” according to the Pentagon. But reports say that what the U.S. actually struck was an FSA-branded rebel group, Jaysh al-Sunna, and killed eighteen people, including eight civilians, three of them children. Jaysh al-Sunna is a local Homs battalion that carries the Free Syrian Army brand; it has no transnationalist aspirations and is not a designated terrorist group.

One theory—and there will be many, getting wilder and wilder—is that Jaysh al-Sunna was struck as part of an effort to slow down Jaysh al-Fatah, the insurgent coalition that includes Nusra which swept Assad from Idlib City at the end of March. While Jaysh al-Fatah is led by hardline Salafists, some of them linked to al-Qaeda, crucial logistics are provided by the FSA-branded groups who are local to the area.

The reaction will depend partly on whether this airstrike deliberately targeted Jaysh al-Sunna, though the question of why America targets an insurgent ammunition depot and doesn’t impose a no-fly zone to stop Assad’s barrel bombs will remain. The airstrike on Ahrar a-Sham in November 2014, despite Ahrar’s al-Qaeda connections, was not taken well by the Syrian opposition since Ahrar has expressed no intentions beyond Syria’s borders. But this strike in Atma is different again: If the U.S. deliberately struck an FSA-branded group, it will seal the view of America as an enemy of the Syrian revolution.

Despite the Obama administration selling the Iranian nuclear deal signed on July 14 in the “narrowest possible terms,” this is a political strategy, which conceals their “grander ambitions” to “open up relations with Tehran” and catalyze a “transformation in the Middle East,” The New York Times reported. Indeed, despite the administration’s insistence that this accord was purely focused on the nuclear program, John Kerry himself has said that he “tried very hard to raise [regional issues] on many occasions” with Iran during the nuclear negotiations.

In truth, the nuclear agreement was designed to remove the nuclear question from U.S.-Iranian relations so President Obama could secure his détente with the Iranian theocracy, drawing down the U.S. presence in the Middle East and having Iran secure U.S. vital interests, notably against ISIS. In the President’s vision, there would be “equilibrium” between America’s old allies and Iran; in reality there would be disequilibrium because Iran wants hegemony, not balance, and has the tools to outdo the Gulf monarchies. Thus, in practice, U.S. even-handedness between the Gulfies and Tehran means underwriting an Iranian Empire, specifically by giving Syria to Iran.

The U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Syria allowed Assad to focus on the nationalist rebels, attempting to complete his narrative that the only insurgents were takfiris. The U.S. has already revoked the regime-change policy and ceased to support the rebellion’s effort to oust Assad. The U.S. has also failed to support forces that oppose both Assad and ISIS because Assad had a U.S. security guarantee. Now the U.S. has abandoned the rebels even as a partner in the anti-ISIS fight and widened the scope of targets to include non-transnationlist anti-Assad forces. With these moves, the U.S.’s alliance with Assad is edging into the open.

For such a terrible moral compromise, collaborating with Assad/Iran won’t even defeat ISIS. Not only is the Assad regime pathetically unable to fight ISIS, even when it wants to, but ISIS couldn’t have asked for more: it told the rebels that America would never help them, that a Crusader-Nusayri-Safavid conspiracy against Sunnis was underway, and ISIS was the only protection for Sunnis against sectarian persecution. Allowance made for rhetorical excess, America appears to be vindicating ISIS.

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