According to a July 12, 2013 Reuters article entitled “Obama Emphasizes US Commitment to Syrian Rebels in Saudi Call,” President Barack Obama told King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that he is committed to providing US support to Syrian rebels who have been waiting for shipments of arms that have been stalled in Washington. Reuters indicated the quote from President Obama’s July 12th phone conversation was integrated into the text of an official statement confirming “the US continued commitment to the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Supreme Military Council and to strengthening the opposition.” That White House statement further explained the two leaders discussed the civil war in Syria and expressed strong concerns about the impact of the conflict in the region. The Reuters article also revealed that US arms have not reached the Syrian rebels, who are struggling to hold back an offensive by the Syrian government. Moreover, it explained that US weapons have been caught in a Washington impasse as some members of the US Congress fear the arms will end up in the hands of Islamic militants.
However, the timing and level of US aid to the Syrian opposition forces was not very likely the main issue on the mind of King Abdullah when he spoke to President Obama. The entire enterprise of training, arming, and directing Syrian opposition forces to bring down the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad is in jeopardy. As the Friends of Syria group (organized by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012 to support Syria’s transition to a democratic government) explained after its June 22, 2013 meeting in Doha, Qatar, a stark military imbalance exits between the Syrian opposition forces and the Syrian Armed Forces and their allies. However, divisions and rivalries between mainstream rebel groups and Islamic militant factions have fractured and hobbled the fighting force. Saudi Arabia and other Arab states that financially supported and armed Islamic militant factions in particular in Syria, are culpable for this predictable outcome. They seem to be adhering to the specious argument that US military arms aid will place the situation back on track. Yet, US military hardware will not improve the situation. Rather, as it is feared by the US Congress, the US aid could very well make matters far worse.
What May Trouble the Saudi King about the Syrian Enterprise
While the President Obama was explaining the US commitment to the Syrian opposition, the Saudi king was unlikely surprised by the fact that the president had to seek Congressional approval before moving forward. King Abdullah undoubtedly understands the workings of the branches of the US government system of checks and balances. Under tacit rules followed by the executive branch and the Congress on intelligence matters the White House will not send arms to the Syrian opposition’s military wing, the Supreme Military Council and its fighting force, the Free Syrian Army if both the Senate and House intelligence committees or just one, expresses serious objections. Both Democrats and Republican expressed concerns that the weapons would reach Islamic militant factions. (Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federal Security Service have expressed similar concern that sophisticated weapons, particularly shoulder launched anti-aircraft missiles brought into Syria, will find their way into Russia and Europe.)
The matter took on another layer when both Senate and House appropriations committees which also routinely review secret intelligence or military aid programs, voiced their concerns. The issues that have stirred concern within the Congress over sending military hardware to the Free Syrian Army are most likely what concerns King Abdullah the Saudi king over the continued participation of the US in the arming effort. The US commitment Syrian opposition is not open-ended. Under current circumstances, the US may eventually need to terminate it. What the Saudi king most likely has begun thinking is what that decision, if made in the near future by President Obama, would mean for Saudi Arabia and the region.
Indeed, the Saudi king is astute enough to know as a result of rogue actions by Islamic militant factions, the entire enterprise of training, arming, and directing the Free Syrian Army in an effort to bring down the regime of Bashar Al-Assad has been put into doubt in the minds of all involved. Those rogue acts include attacks upon mainstream Free Syrian Army groups, killing popular commanders and fighters. Islamic militant factions have attempted to impose their strict conception of sharia or Islamic law on local residents in the territory held by the Free Syrian Army. At times, they have even carried out summary public executions. Further, they have monopolized wheat and fuel supplies in towns creating even greater shortages for residents. Clashes between the mainstream groups and the Islamic militants are intensifying day by day. As Islamic militants continue to pour into Syria, their numbers and capabilities could reach a point where the mainstream forces would no longer be able to contend with them. At that point, the goals of the mainstream Free Syrian Army groups, to create the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Syria, would be supplanted by the goals of the Islamic militant factions, which is to create an Islamic state there.
All of this falls on top of the fact that the Free Syrian Army’s capabilities, under any realistic assessment, cannot be ramped up and the force cannot fight in a size and strength great enough, in any short period of time, to confront the Syrian Armed Forces and its allies, Iran, Hezbollah, the Iraqi Shi’a militia, and Russia. Assad’s powerful allies are ready to support it with money and weapons, and commit substantial numbers of their forces to fight alongside the Syrian Armed Forces as already proven at Qusayr, Homs, and Damascus. The promise of the Friends of Syria to shift the military balance in favor of the Free Syrian Army will not be quickly or easily realized.
The Formidable Islamic Militias in Syria
While the US and Arab states claim to have only trained, armed, and supported vetted and moderate groups in the Free Syrian Army, what is occurring on the ground in Syria contradicts that claim. Two years of arms and support flowing into opposition forces from Arab states has allowed for the growth of Jabhat Al-Nusra and similar Salafist/Jihaddi factions in Syria. Jabhat Al-Nusra or as they are now known, the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, was active in Syria under their parent group the Islamic State of Iraq (Al-Qaida in Iraq) auspices for years prior to the Syrian civil war. Ever since the formation of Al-Qaida in Iraq, itself, the eastern region of Syria—bordering the Al-Anbar Province of Iraq—has been a busy beehive for Al-Qaida activity since its inception following the US-led coalition’s initiation of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
Jabhat Al-Nusra and other Salafist/Jihaddi factions working in concert with it, have been a driving force in the Free Syrian Army. For the balance of the civil war, Jabhat Al-Nusra has led Free Syrian Army assaults on key installations, air defense bases, and coastal and highway routes. They have also been responsible for the bulk of the suicide attacks in civilian areas and assassinations of key officials in the Assad regime. They have become the best equipped, best-organized, and best-financed faction of the Free Syrian Army.
Arab State Culpability For the Fracturing of the Free Syrian Army
As the civil war in Syria got underway, the US and EU involvement was very low-key. However, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, as well as the United Arab Emirates and Jordan since 2012, enthusiastically delivered arms and support to the Free Syrian Army. The Arab states were emboldened by their success in Libya. Many Arab state officials suggested, even as a late as 2012, that Syria would go the way of Libya. Qatar which took the “lead Arab role” in the NATO-led intervention, Operation Unified Protector, rushed to throw its financial wherewithal into the support of the Syrian opposition to take the lead Arab role in Syria, too. Though this effort, Qatar was perceived as trying to use its financial power to develop loyal networks with the Free Syrian Army and set the stage to influence events in Syria after the presumed fall of the Assad regime. Yet, the Qataris had little experience in strategic maneuvering at the level required to positively influence events of Syria’s scale. Attempting to create loyal support was a very difficult undertaking. Many groups in the Free Syrian Army would move from alliance to alliance in search of funding and arms. Islamic militant factions were particularly adept at this. In the end, Qatar’s approach to shaping events served, albeit unintentionally, to strengthen and embolden Salafist/Jihaddis among the Islamic militant factions in the Free Syrian Army. That outcome was contrary to the goals of Qatar’s Arab neighbors in the Gulf and especially the US and EU. Accusations began to rise that Qatar rather than supporting the formation of the Syrian National Council, divided it. Qatar’s efforts to create unity in the Free Syrian Army were said to have led to its fracturing.
For Qatar, engaging in an effort to arm the Free Syrian Army without a secure, steady supply of arms meant Qatar had to scour around for light weapons such as AK-47 rifles, rocket propelled grenade launchers, hand grenades, and ammunition. Qatar bought arms in Libya and Eastern European countries such as Croatia and flew them to Turkey. In Turkey, intelligence services helped to deliver them into Syria. Qatar worked with Turkey for a short while to identify recipients. As Saudi Arabia joined the covert arming effort, Qatar expanded its operation to working with Lebanon, to bring weapons into Syria via the Free Syrian Army supply hub at Qusayr. As the conflict progressed, Qatar turned to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to identify factions to support. As a result of that effort, Qatar’s support of the Farouq brigades began. (Later there would be violent clashes between Farouq brigade troops and fighters from Al-Sham and Jabhat Al-Nusra.) Qatari unconventional warfare units were also tasked to go into Syria and find additional factions to arm and supply.
It was Qatar’s links to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood that led to its rift with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia was adverse to anything related to that organization. The division between Qatar and Saudi Arabia had harmful consequences on the unity of both the political and military wings of the Syrian opposition. By September 2012, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were creating separate military alliances and structures. It was then that the two countries were urged by the US to bring the parallel structures together under the Supreme Military Council led by General Salim Idriss. Yet, it is being reported that Qatar and Saudi Arabia continue to work independently.
Fund raising within other Arab states for Islamic militant factions in Syria is typically conducted privately during an evening event known as diwaniya. In Kuwait in particular, fund raising activity must be conducted under special permit. Money received, which has been substantial, is brought into Syria by luggage. The recipients of the funds are given freedom to spend the money as they wish. That might include, recruiting mujahedeen to engage in jihad in Syria. The US is greatly concerned that the money may help strengthen Islamic militant factions with links to Al-Qaida such as Jabhat Al-Nusra. The US would prefer that this funding stream would also pass through the Supreme Military Council. However, that would require those providing the funds to cooperate with the US, which is somewhat unlikely.
Islamic Militants Continue to Pour into Syria.
As infighting continues, more Islamic militants and Salafist/Jihaddis pour into Syria. The latest development, likely resulting from the rapid increase in size, strength, and confidence is the decision by Pakistani Taliban to set up a base in Syria, assess the needs of the jihad in Syria, and work out joint operations with Islamic militant factions there. The bases were allegedly set up with the assistance of former Afghan mujahedeen of Middle Eastern origin that have moved to Syria in recent years. The cell has the approval of militant factions both within and outside of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella organization of militant groups fighting Pakistani government forces. In the past, Islamic militant fighters from Pakistan fought in the Balkans and Central Asia. Between 1992 and 1995, the group Harkatul Mujahedeen sent a large number of fighters to Bosnia to support the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Between 1988 and 1994, Pakistan and Afghan Taliban fought in Nagorno-Karabakh on the side of Azerbaijan against Armenian forces.
Vetting the Islamic Militants
When Jabhat Al-Nusra, using Qatari arms and money, began gaining ground against the Syrian Armed Forces, it troubled Western governments to the extent that the US placed Jabhat Al-Nusra on the global terrorist list. The US also instituted a consultative process to reign in Qatar’s activities. Two operations rooms were set up, one in Turkey and the other in Jordan, to oversee weapons deliveries. However, arms and money found their way to the Islamic militant factions even with the offices. There can be no doubt that the US knows much about the Islamic militants and Salafist/Jihaddis operating in Syria. That information would include family ties, financial networks, media sources, disgruntled employees, imminent threats, homeland plots, foreign sales, health status, financial resources tradecraft, recruiting tactics. What they need to know is who they can rely upon in the field with sophisticated weapons, and participate in larger operations against Assad’s forces and allies. They want to know whether the factions or individual supports Syria’s transition to a democratic style of government. The US Congress wants to require Free Syrian Army groups and members meet its criteria on human rights, terrorism, and nonproliferation of arms. However, actions speak louder than words. Jabhat Al-Nusra may have done the bulk of the fighting and account for the most of the Free Syrian Army’s successes. Yet, by all accounts, the Jabhat Al-Nusra and Salafist/Jihaddi factions associated with it have engaged in ugly behavior toward the people of Syria and the mainstream Free Syrian Army groups. Clearly, they would be unable to cooperate with mainstream Free Syrian Army groups to create a secure and sustainable peace in a post-Assad Syria. Under any vetting process Jabhat Al-Nusra would need to be rejected for support, as would any Salafist/Jihaddi factions associated with it.
The US possesses considerable know how when it comes to training and equipping forces to defeat rogue regimes. However, the US does not possess magic. Arab state leaders such as King Abdullah must understand that even with a commitment by the US on Syria, operations such as the one ongoing to support the Free Syrian Army could fail. Similar operations have failed in the past. Among the notable failures are Operation Haik in Indonesia in 1958, Operation Zapata in Cuba (The Bay of Pigs) in 1961, and Operations Modular and Hooper in Angola in 1987 and 1988. The operation in Syria may eventually fall into this category. The destruction of the Free Syrian Army’s cohesion caused by uncooperative Islamic militant factions makes it more likely the Syria operation to train and equip will fail. Arab states, having a myopic perspective and driven by hubris resulting from success in Libya, only saw the potential of pursuing their own interests in Syria. They ignored the interests of other powerful states supporting Assad’s regime, such as Russia, Iran, and China. The strong ties of those states to Syria were matched by their efforts to support it.
Rather than simply push the US to fix the situation, Arab states could look to themselves to gain control over it. For example, Arab states could exploit the control they have over the Islamic militant factions that comes with being their main supplier of money and arms. The fear of retribution by Islamists and Salafists/Jihaddis at home makes this an unlikely approach for Arab governments to take. Yet, they would need to evaluate for themselves whether they were committed enough to the success in Syria to that degree. Arab states could support, even propose, a Western-sponsored purge of Jabhat Al-Nusra and similar Salafist/Jihaddis in the Free Syrian Army. To bolster that effort, Arab states could quietly provide granular information about the Islamic militant factions they possess. They would be required to stand aside whenever direction might be taken. Yet, their full support would be needed to strengthen remaining mainstream groups in the Free Syrian Army. Arab states could commit their intelligence services and unconventional warfare units to aiding and advising the Free Syrian Army on the ground in Syria. Just as Qatar had its unconventional warfare units in Syria seeking Free Syrian Army units to support, they could work to police the lines between disputing groups and factions, use techniques to create unit cohesion and cooperation. They could also support Free Syrian Army operations by instructing unit commanders and senior leaders in maneuver tactics and unconventional warfare. When necessary, they could fight alongside the Free Syrian Army against Assad’s forces and allies.
These options are among some that may reverse the downward trend for the Free Syrian Army. Yet, again, there is no guarantee on their effectiveness. Something must be done. if no decision is taken, perhaps the Saudi king should keep asking President Obama about his commitment to the Syrian opposition. Eventually he may hear a different answer. It will be the very one the king knows he should hear.