On July 8, 2013, the New York Times reported that in Syria, deadly clashes raged between a mainstream rebel group and a radical faction, both from the Free Syrian Army. The fighting highlighted the difficulties associated with unifying the military leadership of the Syrian opposition to the government of President Bashar Al-Assad, and even more, having them halt the recent battlefield gains made by the Syrian Armed Forces and its allies. The clashes also bring into question whether arming Syrian opposition forces may be a viable option at all. This problem, as well as others facing the Free Syrian Army, troubles policy makers in the capitals of the US, EU, and Arab states who support that force. However, as the clashes among rival Free Syrian Army units intensify, a new option for supporting the hobbled force, perhaps even more in line with the national interest of its benefactors, becomes apparent. It may very well be the last, best hope for shaping up the Free Syrian Army and getting things going on the battlefield.
Attempting to Halt the Gains the Assad regime’s Forces
On June 22, 2013, in Doha, Qatar, the Friends of Syria, a group organized by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012 to support Syria’s transition to a democratic government, vowed to increase the scope and scale of assistance to the Syrian opposition’s political wing, the Syrian National Council, and its military wing, the Supreme Military Council. The Friends of Syria includes the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. US Secretary of State John Kerry stated the Friends of Syria had also concluded that the Assad regime had crossed a red-line with its reported use of chemical weapons. He further stated that the Assad regime had already internationalized the militarization of the conflict by allowing the involvement of Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah. Through leaks from the US officials, it was revealed that the main plan was to ramp up Free Syrian Army combat capabilities to a level at which it could launch a concerted attack Assad’s forces and allies by August. However, bringing the Free Syrian Army, the fighting force of the Supreme Military Council, up to snuff to engage in major combat operations, has proven very difficult. The Free Syrian Army is a loose-knit, umbrella group. The recent clashes between the rival factions are made more significant since one faction is an Islamic militant group affiliated with Al-Qaida. US, EU and Arab state intelligence and special operations forces, already engaged in supplying the Free Syrian Army with arms, military materiel, and nonlethal supplies, have more recently been struggling to determine which are members of Islamic militant groups to prevent them from receiving sophisticated Western weapons. The presence and participation of Islamic militant groups in the Free Syrian Army raised concerns, particularly in Western capitals, at the start of the civil war. As time has passed, those concerns have not been mitigated in the slightest way. In fact, the worst concerns about the Islamic militants are being realized.
Islamic Militant’s Destructive Presence in the Free Syrian Army
As the June 22nd New York Times article further detailed, the Islamic militants in the opposition were members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, the new Syria based affiliate of Al-Qaida which includes the well-armed Al-Nusra Front. In a recent episodes of the struggle include the Islamist brigade of Ahrar Al-Sham, along with Al-Nusra fighters, ejected a mainstream Free Syrian Army unit, the Farouq brigade, from town of Raqqa. The Islamists accused the Farouq brigade of had hoarded arms and refused to go to the aid of allies during the Qusayr battle. They also alleged that some of its members of consorting with women and drinking wine. In the most recent violent incident, in Dana, members of an extremist Islamist group were accused of beheading two rival fighters and leaving their heads beside a can near the town square. On July 1, 2013, the BBC had reported Islamic militants killed a popular Catholic priest in the convent of the town of Ghassaniya. The priest had fled to the convent after his monastery, Saint Simon, was bombed by Islamic militants. In Aleppo and Idlib provinces, Al-Qaida affiliated Islamic militant units have been accused of trying to monopolize wheat and fuel supplies creating even greater shortages for residents.. Throughout towns and villages under Free Syrian Army control, Islamic militants have attempted to impose their strict conception of Islamic law, sometimes even carrying out summary public executions. This has created popular resentment against them among average Syrians. According to the New York Times, foreign fighters continue to spill into Syria through its porous borders. .
The Global War on Terror May Be Over, But Counterterrorism Is Still a Priority
On May 23, 2013, US President Barack Obama may have stated that the open-ended global war on terror had to end. However, that did not mean that the US has in anyway halted its attacks upon Islamic militants affiliated with Al-Qaida. The most obvious manifestation of this are the drone strikes that attack Islamic militants in Pakistan, Yemen and wherever they may be operating. Supporting the Free Syria Army is a “cause” based on the interests of the US to bring down to regime of Bashar Al-Assad and support the establishment of a democratic government in Syria. Islamic militant groups fighting in Syria albeit may want to remove the Assad regime. However, it is counterintuitive to seek those goals while arming Islamic militant groups that affiliate themselves with Al-Qaida and are bent on establishing a strict conception of sharia law in Syria. The attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, DC happened. The March 11, 2004 attacks in Madrid occurred. The attacks on July 7, 2005 in London took place. The attacks on November 26, 2008 in Mumbai transpired. There were many other terrorist attacks. Osama Bin Laden, killed by US Navy SEALS on May 2, 2011, was determined to conduct acts of terrorism against the West and Islamic states of which he disapproved. His organization remains engaged in that effort. The Islamic militant groups that have clashed with mainstream Free Syrian Army units are the same forces that the world sought to destroy during the global war on terror.
Syria has become a state sized version of the town of Sinjar in Iraq. Sinjar was a location determined by the US Joint Special Operations Command to be the entry point for numerous terrorist groups coming into Iraq. Under the order of the commander Joint Special Operations Command, then Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, Sinjar was hit hard and effectively in October 2007. The overall Sinjar effort was said by General David Petraeus, to have done more to halt the terror networks that flowed foreign fighters and suicide bombers into Iraq than any other operation. With the help of mainstream Free Syrian Army units, US, EU, and Arab state intelligence and unconventional warfare units could defeat Islamic militant groups in Syria and remove them from the ranks of the opposition forces. Once the Islamic militant hold in Syria and connection to the Free Syrian Army was eliminated, intelligence and special operations forces would have greater opportunities to do other things with the Syrian opposition.
Exploiting the Opportunity Presented
The Central Intelligence Agency and US Special Operations Forces are said to be already working on matters concerning the Free Syrian Army. The Los Angeles Times reported that operatives of both the Central Intelligence Agency and US Special Operations Forces have organized a secret training program for Free Syrian Army fighters with anti-tank and antiaircraft weapons since November 2012. Iterations of the training are two-week courses conducted by US as well as Jordanian and French operatives. It includes training with Russian-designed 14.5-millimeter antitank rifles, anti-tank missiles and 23-millimeter antiaircraft weapons. Teams of US Special Operations Forces selected the trainees over the last year when the US military set up regional supply lines into Syria to provide the rebels with nonlethal assistance, including uniforms, radios and medical aid. About 20 to 45 fighters are trained at a time. Between 80 and 100 Free Syrian Army fighters from all over Syria went through the courses in May 2013 alone. At the time the Los Angeles Times article was printed, about 100 rebels from Daraa had attended four courses, and rebels from Damascus, the Syrian capital had attended three. While engaged in training activities, Central Intelligence Agency officers would sit and interview trainees during breaks from sessions, and afterward they would try to collect specific information on the situation in Syria based on intelligence requirements. The Central Intelligence Agency is also engaged in an effort to eliminate the risk that more sophisticated weapons, such as man-portable, air defense systems (MANPADS), which are shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, would be given to Islamic militant groups. It has put in place what officials have described as an “elaborate” vetting procedure for the Free Syrian Army fighters they train. To accelerate the effort, the Central Intelligence Agency is said to be considering placing some units of US Special Operations Forces under its authority for the additional purpose of conducting some of the training. The Central Intelligence Agency is reportedly engaged in joint efforts with unconventional warfare units from Jordan and the United Arab Emirates to enhance the training effort.
To support mainstream groups of the Free Syrian Army, the Central Intelligence Agency and US Special Operations Forces could possible work under a plan that might include some of the following steps. To begin, the Central Intelligence Agency would need to increase its intelligence collection resources in Syria. Working with locals and insurgents to collect required intelligence concerning an opponent to be utilized in the development of an operational plan would be the standard operating procedure for Central Intelligence Agency operatives and Us Special Operations Forces. However, having established very positive links with mainstream Free Syrian Army commanders and fighters, the process of gathering information about Islamic militants within the force would be made less complicated. When necessary, Central Intelligence Agency operatives and special operations forces, with Free Syrian Army commanders at their side, could quietly interview locals to gain granular information on the Islamic militant groups including the size of specific units, the locations of its fighters, the backgrounds of individual fighters and commanders, unit capabilities, and its combat and nonlethal resources. Islamic groups that seek to work with mainstream groups would be identified and an effort would be made by the Central Intelligence Agency to establish a rapport with them. An effort would eventually be made to support those groups and place them under the leadership of the Free Syrian Army. Islamic militant groups hostile to the concept and intent of the Syrian opposition and the Friends of Syrian, and identified as having attacked mainstream Free Syrian Army fighters, would be identified and targeted. Special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance means would be used to monitor the locations, daily movements, and activities of the hostile Islamic militant groups. Leaders, arms, supply lines and depots, and financial support would be targeted. All entry points of Islamic militants should be identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance. Penetrating the Islamic militant groups would unlikely be helpful and would place any assets engaged in that effort at risk once direct action is taken against those groups. The Central Intelligence Agency could request to have its efforts, and those of US Special Operation Forces, supported by allied intelligence and unconventional warfare units. A plan would be developed to conduct Free Syrian Army operations without the targeted Islamic militant groups. Sufficient numbers of mainstream fighters must be trained, equipped and fielded to cover any gaps created by the Islamic militant groups that would be removed from Free Syrian Army controlled territory. At that time, the Central Intelligence Agency could also engage in a rapid and robust training and equipping of the Free Syrian Army.
New voices in the Obama administration at the White House and at the UN, viewing Syria as a humanitarian crisis worthy of some type of intervention, likely have the ear of the president. As a result, the Central Intelligence Agency may very likely be pushed harder to work with allies and special operations forces to train and equip the Free Syrian Army as it is currently organized. Currently, the Free Syrian Army lacks the ability to achieve success against the rejuvenated Syrian Armed Forces with its allies. There is no real cohesion within the organization. Rivalries and divisions are more apparent. While some type of modus vivendi may have been established among a few units of rival factions in close contact with Assad’s forces, those contacts cannot serve as the foundation of a unified fighting force. The Assad regime, on the other hand, has very powerful allies ready to support it with money and weapons, as well as fight alongside his forces. Under the most favorable assessment, the Free Syrian Army capabilities cannot be ramped up, and the force cannot fight in concert in a size and strength great enough, in any short period of time, to confront Assad’s forces. Doing anything too substantial with high-tech or heavy weapons shipments to the Free Syrian Army at this point would be reckless.
Supporting Islamic militants who attack mainstream Free Syrian Army fighters is not in the interest of the US or any of the “Friends of Syria.” Creating a viable fighting force from the Free Syrian Army as it currently exists with rivalries and clashes will be impossible. Clashes between the mainstream groups and the Islamic militants are intensifying. The Free Syrian Army, even if lucky enough under some scenario to defeat Assad’s forces, would not be able to play a role in creating a secure and sustainable peace in Syria because its deep divisions. As long as Islamic militants continue to pour into Syria, their numbers and capabilities will reach a point where the mainstream forces would no longer be able to contend with them. It is clear that the more powerful Islamic militant groups as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, the new Syria based affiliate of Al-Qaida which includes the well-armed Al-Nusra Front, are not directed toward a transition in Syria to a democratic form of government. Only by intervening covertly on the side of mainstream elements against Islamic militant groups adverse to the efforts of government transition supported by the Friends of Syria would the Free Syrian Army have a remote chance of being positioned to defeat Assad’s forces. Supporting the mainstream groups and eliminating undesirable factions would be a clear demonstration of the Friends of Syria’s continued support for positive change in Syria. Providing this “helping hand” would prove the organization to be a reliable ally of the Syrian opposition and its original goals. With the Free Syrian Army facing the possibility of folding under the weight of these clashes, and civilian deaths now exceeding 100,000 as a result of the conflict, time is of the essence. A decision must be made. Assad has no reason to negotiate terms with an opposition he could easily defeat. He may believe the force will soon collapse on its own. The option presented here is the best option to take if supporting and utilizing the Free Syrian Army remains the goal of the US, EU, and Arab states.
Note: This post is intended as a “think piece” containing observations, ruminations, and reflections for the consideration of greatcharlie.com readers. It is not intended as an endorsement of, or the presentation of a plan for, US and allied covert action against elements of the Free Syrian Army.