President Barack Obama's Syria policy, such as it's been, is now dead.
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 temporary 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 group and political party Hezbollah has strengthened both sides.
What precisely happened is a subject of some dispute. US officials, behind veils of anonymity, told reporters yesterday that the recently created Islamic Front – representing a variety of rebel units all interested in imposing the Sunni version of Islamic law on Syria – had overrun the more secular and Western-leaning headquarters of the FSA. The Islamic Front also seized a storehouse filled with US-supplied telecommunications equipment, field rations, and medicine, as well as weapons.
The claim was that FSA chief Gen. Salim Idris had been forced to flee to Qatar – a humiliating exit for a rebel leader touted by US officials as the commander of the armed Syrian rebellion.
Today, the exiled politicians in the Syrian National Council, a US-backed civilian group, claimed that the Islamic Front had actually come to the FSA's rescue. The US has sought since last year to put this council forward as the "legitimate representative" of the Syrian people. Its spokesman, Khaled Saleh, said that the FSA's base was overrun by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a rival Islamist group to the Islamic Front that sprung out of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Reuters reports. The Islamic Front was then invited in by the FSA, and drove out ISIS, Saleh said. Are we clear so far?
Maybe that's the way it happened, but the dramatically different stories told by the US and the US-favored Syrian opposition are not very reassuring. The disputed events near the Turkish border were said to have taken place over the weekend.
The Syrian National Council has often been touted as an umbrella for most of the Syrian rebellion's fighting strength (for instance by Elizabeth O'Bagy, a paid advocate for US intervention in Syria who lost her job earlier this after she was found to have lied about her academic credentials). However, in practice it has represented the FSA and little else – and not very effectively.
Fred Hof, who previously served as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's special representative on Syria, writes this week that in the absence of the kinds of guns and money that have been provided to Islamist groups by Gulf sponsors like Saudi Arabia (Hof doesn't name them), rebel units have been abandoning the FSA in droves.
Recent events have highlighted the extent to which respectable Syrian nationalists in the opposition have been sidelined, and the recent suspension of non-lethal assistance to the Free Syrian Army by the United States further attests to this reality. Fighters affiliated with the recently formed Islamic Front—a coalition of armed, non-al-Qaeda Syrian Islamist groups opposed to the Assad regime—recently seized some US-supplied, non-lethal materiel from the Free Syrian Army. Personnel of the Islamic Front can now dine on meals-ready-to-eat and communicate with one another using equipment paid for by US taxpayers. General Salim Idris, the very capable officer through whom the United States wanted all weaponry and equipment for the armed Syrian opposition funneled, has seen forces he had hoped to command migrate to Islamist formations whose sponsors and supporters deliver arms, ammunition, and money, as opposed to rations, medical kits, radios, and pickup trucks. The Coalition-affiliated Supreme Military Council and the disparate units of the Free Syrian Army loosely associated with it are now essentially out of business
"Now essentially out of business." If Mr. Hof is right, and there's very little reason to disagree with his assessment, pulling back together whatever strands of the FSA are left will be very, very hard. The temporary suspension of US aid will make it harder for what remains of its units to hang together. Moreover, a weaker FSA may mean that whatever US aid does go to Syria ends up in the hands of rebel fighters who are hostile to US interests.
Furthermore, the claim today that the FSA teamed up with the Islamic Front to stand up to the Al Qaeda-affiliated ISIS won't exactly give US officials the warm and fuzzies. The front's units have engaged in hyper-sectarian rhetoric and are opposed to any kind of political settlement that would leave in place Syria's current power structure – the only real hope for a negotiated end to the war at this point.
A negotiated end is what Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama have insisted is the only way out of the war, but the marginalization of men like Idris makes any grounds for meaningful talks even shakier than they'd been all along.
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 make it not worth considering. 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. As I wrote in May:
Put simply, the Syrian opposition has not come together in the way the US had hoped – not in its military composition, which now involves a lot of fellow travelers from a regional Al Qaeda affiliate, nor on the international diplomatic front, which is fraught with infighting and doubt about the worth of a conference far from the battlefield.
Meanwhile, members of the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah continue to pour into Syria to fight for Assad, with Iranian and Russian military support for the regime lurking in the background.
Seven months on, a policy that was clearly in the process of failing has failed. And coming up with a new approach more suited to reality on the ground has only gotten harder – even as the bodies mount, and the refugees continue to flee.