The Extent of US Loyalty to the Syrian Opposition May Be a Lackluster Investment of Arms

As a result of a finding that concluded the Assad regime used chemical weapons, the US would begin supplying the opposition forces with small arms and ammunition. A classified order was issued directing the Central Intelligence Agency to coordinate arming the rebels in concert with allies.

On Thursday, June 13, 2013, the White House announced that the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime had crossed a “red-line” US President Barack Obama set by using chemical weapons, sarin gas, against Syrian opposition forces, albeit in a limited fashion, on multiple occasions. This declaration was based on a US intelligence community assessment. As a result of the finding that concluded the Assad regime used chemical weapons, the US would begin supplying the opposition forces with small arms and ammunition. The Wall Street Journal reported a classified order was issued directing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to coordinate arming the rebels in concert with its allies. For General Salim Idriss, commander of the Syrian Military Council (SMC), this news should have inspired his fighters. Finally, US arms were being sent to them. Yet, the Syrian opposition, which includes General Idriss’ SMC, as its military wing, and the Syrian National Council (SNC), as its political wing, apparently already feels quite secure in its position with the international community against Assad’s regime. Moreover, the SNC and SMC behave as if they were an indispensible part of the Syrian issue for the US, the EU, Arab states, as well as with the UN. It would seem that the many problems of the SMC and SNC which are manifested in their attitudes, behavior, and capabilities, would make them far from certain about their standing with their benefactors. The willingness of some in the international community to ignore the opposition groups’ problems and continually reward the SNC and SMC has likely imbued them with such confidence in their situation.  The time may have come for them to stop feeling so certain about their position.  This is true not only because of their relative competencies, but because the Syria conflict seems to be aggravating existing rifts in US-Russia relations. The danger of a potential conflict between these major powers over Syria should cause benfactors of the SNC and SMC to better assess the potential impact of their support. It might be best now for the SNC and SMC, themselves, to consider how they truly fit into the foreign policies and national interests of their friends. Their cause and actions need to be more in sync with those interests. An immediate change toward a more appreciative and responsive approach to the efforts of the US, EU, and Arab states, and an effort to negotiate a settlement, should seen.

Recent reports on the SNC and SMC point to: disunity and disagreements; demands of preconditions for negotiations; the considerable weakness of the SMC’s force in the field the Free Syrian Army (FSA) relative to the Syrian Armed Forces and its allies on the ground; and, a presence and influence of Islamic militants in its ranks. As Joshua Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and a Syria expert was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as stating, “The extreme fragmentation of the opposition makes it impossible to do business with.” Understanding how the SNC and SMC were ever found by some in the international community to be worthy of an investment in money, personnel, and materiel in support of their struggle with the Assad regime, requires understanding the origins of the Syrian opposition movement. From the start, the international community greatly exaggerated the real potential of the SNC and SMC. This approach was driven by intelligence reports produced in the capitals ot the US, EU, and Arab states indicating that the Syrian conflict would not last long. The German intelligence service, the BND, for example, predicted the Assad regime’s imminent collapse in 2012. Vali Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, explained in the Chicago Tribune, at the time, the US believed that Assad would inevitably fall and intervention was not necessary. Despite the fact that there were armed militants in its number, the Syrian opposition movement, originally, was never prepared to overthrow President Assad and his regime through military action as a rebel group. The spiral toward war began in 2011 with protests for reforms and for a halt to violence against prisoners held by the Assad regime. It erupted into armed conflict. There were attempts to stem the violence with referendum on single party rule, but there was little confidence in the regime’s promises in the ever-growing opposition. By the end of summer, the SNC was formed in Istanbul as the main organization of the opposition. The SNC called for the overthrow of Assad’s regime and rejected dialogue. Meanwhile, another organization that formed, the National Coordination Committee, supported talks with the regime believing that bringing down the regime would lead to further chaos and conflict. These organizations included political groups, long-time exiles, grassroots organizers, and armed militants, mostly divided along intellectual, ethnic, and sectarian lines. In December 2011, the organizations were finally “united” against the Assad regime by agreement.

The FSA was cobbled together in 2011 with a curious mix of Syrian retired military, defectors, former reservists, and the movements’ activists, along with Islamic militants and members of the al-Qaeda affiliated groups. Its ranks grew to 15,000 fighters on the ground. Yet, the organization had serious problems. Joshua Landis has explained that “the militia heads on the ground in Syria don’t look up to or obey the civilian opposition leaders.” Even more, the SMC had difficulties establishing real cooperation and coordination during operations. The many groups at best displayed tolerance toward each other. Some Islamic militant groups steadily began functioning more independently. The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria and the Al-Nusra Front eventually became forces the SMC would have to reckon with. These problems were compounded by the fact that the FSA lacked real military power, in terms of fighters, heavy weapons, the ability to maneuver and authentic military acumen among its commanders. That meant the force would hardly be able to march on Damascus to remove Assad. What it could do is roam the countryside attacking the Syrian Army “guerilla-style” and take control of territory when the odds were in its favor.  However, the Syrian Army, rather than chase the rebels around the countryside, fell back to strongholds in order to minimize casualties and build up its strength with the assistance of its allies.

Western states, allegedly monitoring the situation closely, somehow saw these developments as very positive, and policy and decision makers oddly began to assess the SNC and SMC as a viable core for a new political and military leadership in Syria. Thinking of that type gained momentum, and eventually some states such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, began secretly delivering tons of arms to the FSA. When UN and Arab League joint special envoy Kofi Annan effort to create a ceasefire failed, more states, including the US, began to consider ways to support the SMC and FSA on the ground. Military intervention was ruled out in a March 2012 meeting in Cairo by the Arab League, but Assad also was asked to step down and pass his power to his vice-president and it was proposed that the monitoring mission in Syria be increased. Assad rejected all of that, but the SNC and SMC rejected it, too! As a newly formed movement and organization, it should have been considered foolhardy to reject the peace efforts of its benefactors. However, that is exactly what the SNC and SMC did. Despite the positive international response in favor of the SNC and SMC, arguments over policies and approaches among the diverse groups in the SNC became a regular feature of their meetings. It was well-observed in meetings established by the US, EU, and Arab states concerning the delivery of aid to them held in Doha, Qatar, and Tunis, Tunisia. Still, the divisions and shortcomings of the SNC and SMC had no negative impact on international supporters. Rather, at the same time, Qatar, Tunisia, and Morocco recalled their ambassadors from Damascus. Turkey issued a statement declaring it was running out of patience with Assad’s regime. Then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to create the “Friends of Syria” designated to stand with the people of Syria and not the government. Further, in a Geneva meeting, a UN communiqué was drawn up that agreed to the creation of a transitional government and what it would look like. It would include members of the opposition and former members of the regime based on consent. Most intriguing was the US demand that there would be no place for Assad in the transitional government. That communiqué threw the West firmly behind the burgeoning SNC and SMC.

In addition to the belief that Assad would inevitably fall and intervention was not necessary, international perspectives to the Syrian conflict were biased by the Libya episode. In Libya, a determined rebel force, supported by airpower for the US, EU, and Arab states, defeated the government forces of Muammar Qaddafi. There were also analyses that found the Syrian Armed Forces and the FSA somehow evenly matched, except the FSA lacked high-tech and heavy weapons. The truth could easily dispell this illusion. The opposing forces were not balanced at all, but rather, greatly tilted in the Assad regime’s favor. The Syrian Army has considerable size, strength, and capabilities. While official statistics say the Syrian Army had a strength of 220,000 troops when the war began, the International Institute for Strategic Studies believes that number has fallen to 50,000 loyal forces mainly among Allawite Special Forces, the Republican Guard, and the 3rd and 4th Divisions. However, other analysts have also estimated that when the ranks of the security forces are counted as a whole, including the Mukhabarat or Intelligence organizations, the police, and Shabiha or paramilitaries/street gangs, the number again rises near 200,000.

The combat power of that force has been enhanced on the ground by the presence of allies such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iranian special forces or IRGC-Quds Force, Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces militia, and Iraqi Shi’a militant brigades. Tons of arms and sophisticated weapon systems from Russia, and additional aid from Iran, and China further enhance the force. The size of the Russian military presence has not been specified, but in 2012, the Guardian concluded it was considerable. It is doubtful that the Russians will contribute ground forces for the fight. However, Russian advisers would unlikely move too far from S-300 rocket systems or any other advance weaponry their country allegedly has provided the Assad regime. Reports exist that say Russia will sell MiG-29 fighters to Syria and the Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, will soon be stationed in the Mediterranean. Israeli analysts had estimated that 4,000 Iranian officers and men from the IRGC, Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and IRGC-Quds Force were on the ground. Iran stated, however, it would deploy 4,000 IRGC troops to Syria. The Iranians would certainly be willing to fight alongside the Syrian Army much as they fought alongside and within the Bosnian and Herzegovina Armija from 1994 to 1995. Indeed, what may eventually be observed is Iranian units folding into Syrian Army units and placed under the command of Syrian Army officers. Hezbollah is already in the fight, with nearly 4,000 fighters in Syria, particularly within provinces bordering Lebanon. Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, vowed to propel Assad to victory.

There is no evidence that the SNC and SMC have evolved in any way that would cause one to assess that they were ready to take down Assad. The long-term bickering and in-fighting certainly is disconcerting. However, there are other issues. The commander of the SMC, General Salim Idriss, put his own character into question during a surprise visit to Syria made by US Senator John McCain (R-Arizona). At great personal risk, Senator McCain, a US political icon, went into Syria to observe the operations of the FSA and to enhance his ability to advocate in support for the organization with his colleagues in the US Congress. As the guest of General Idriss, Senator McCain should have been protected from any controversy or problems. Yet, General Idriss allowed Senator McCain to be photographed with Mohammed Nour, commander of the FSA’s Northern Storm Brigade. Nour had been implicated in the kidnapping of Lebanese Shi’a pilgrims in 2012. While denying Nour the opportunity to meet with Senator McCain may have put General Idriss in a difficult political situation with one of his commanders, he did not hesitate to create potential poblems for Senator McCain by doing so. General Idriss displayed an incredible lack of courtesy and respect toward the US Senator, and questionable judgement. Senator McCain, a gentleman, has shrugged off the incident. Yet, many Americans were incensed by his treatment. General Idriss’s behavior becomes a bit more understandable given feelings the FSA’s rank and file have openly expressed about the US. As an FSA member was quoted in the New York Times as stating, “We will accept support even from Satan to finish the Assad regime.” At the same time this was occurring, in Istanbul, the SNC and SMC, once again were engaged in considerable bickering and arguments over issues such as how many seats each group deserved. This was done, despite of the tireless work by US Secretary of State John Kerry to bring the Russians and the Assad regime to the table to talk. Some have called the SNC and SMC failure to respond to Kerry fully as Kerry’s flop. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The problem is not Secretary Kerry and his tireless work to establish a peace agreement. The problem is the SNC and SMC which the US supports, and now arms.

The CIA will have its hands full trying to arm the FSA. Its continued work in support of their cause will likely be met with further ingratitude. Having received arms from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, which the CIA helped deliver, General Idriss very publicly complained about the quality of the weapons his forces were receiving. He pleaded for “Western” anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles saying the weapons the FSA had were no match for the Syrian Army’s modern tanks and weapons systems. It was a rebuff to the Qatari, Saudi, and Turkish efforts. Those states were not selling the arms supplied, but giving them to the SMC and FSA. In any event, the present reality regarding military assistance is that the Russians and Iranians, through their military assistance to Assad’s regime, have raised the bar too high and too fast in the past two years in Syria for the US, EU, and Arab states to do anything substantial with high-tech or even heavy weapons at this point. General Idriss, in spite of the revolutionary zeal of his forces, should have been pragmatic enough to have recognized this fact. Perhaps to create some benefit for themselves, SMC leaders seek to collect Western anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles now in order to sell them later on the black market after victory or defeat. This would be one way in which the concern of Russian President Vladimir Putin about the weapons provided possibly surfacing in Europe, might be realized. Certainly, the CIA will successfully carry out the task of delivering US arms as assigned by policy and decision makers. Yet, providing US arms directly to the opposition arms in a way that would dramatically change the situation on ground would just be asking too much. The SMC, General Idriss, and the FSA fighters would still complain vehemently about not getting the right tools to win. (They are already saying small arms from the US will not be enough. Clearly these men, particularly their leaders, are not mature enough, and worldly enough, to understand that the US owes them absolutely nothing.

There is a real “Russian factor” in Syria of which Western capitals and Arab states, soon enough become most apparent. The Russian factor for now should outweigh concerns regarding the opposition. No matter the rationale behind it, the planning for any sort of military intervention could not be conducted without consideration that airstrikes or even a no-fly zone might result in harm to Russian advisers and other personnel. No clash with them should be an outcome of US efforts. The Syria conflict simply does not rise-to-a-level high enough as an issue over which any rational policymaker or decision maker in the US, EU, or Arab state to consider fighting with Russia. While the SNC and SMC may believe that their cause is the only one of real importance and urgency in the world, they need to know that perspective is wholly unrealistic. They would be greatly mistaken if they remotely thought that their situation in Syria warranted placing the security of the US, EU, or another Arab state at stake. For the US, maintaining positive relations with Russia within the parameters of its own national policies, and regarding their respective activities is very important.

As President Obama’s chemical weapons red-line has been crossed, the SNC and SMC will now receive US military aid for its forces. Some policy makers in the Obama administration apparently believe Syria, on the basis of being as a humanitarian crisis, is very worthy of some type of intervention. However, this is not 2011, but 2013, and things have changed in Syria. The FSA lacks the ability to achieve great success against the rejuvenated Syrian Armed Forces with its allies. It is unlikely that FSA capabilities could be ramped up to reach a size and strength great enough in any short period of time to confront the Syrian Armed Forces and allies as they are amassed. Doing anything too substantial with high-tech or heavy weapons shipments to the FSA at this point would be a foolhardy and reckless. Syria is not Libya, where Muammar al-Gaddafi stood alone against the opposition and Western airpower. In Syria, Assad has very powerful allies ready to support him with money and weapons, and fight alongside his forces. A clash with the Russia must be avoided. US Secretary of State John Kerry has sought to have the opposition meet with the Assad regime representatives in Geneva and come to some agreement on a transitional government. Now is the best and, perhaps, final chance for the SNC and SMC to organize representatives and go to Geneva to reach an agreement. The SNC and SMC can eventually lead Syria into the future. The failure to reach an agreement may result in a situation, created through military moves by the Assad regime, which the US, EU and Arab states, might not be in the best position to halt. Those states have dealt with Assad regime for years, and can easily tolerate it a few years more until some truly viable solution to it is found. However, for the SNC and SMC, such military action by Assad’s forces may be something their FSA fighters on the ground may be unable to cope with, and, perhaps, may be unable to live through.

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