Congressional Hurdles Lifted on Arming Syrian Rebels: Beware Assad, and Islamic Militants, Too!

On July 22, 2013, Reuters reported in an exclusive story that Congress and the Obama administration agreed to move forward with a plan for the US to arm the struggling Syrian rebels according to officials.  The first break in the impasse came on July 12 when members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who had questioned the wisdom of arming the insurgents, decided behind closed doors to tentatively agree that the Obama administration could go ahead with its plans, but wanted updates as the covert effort proceeded.  Then on July 12th, the House Committee reached a consensus to give a cautious go-ahead after certain concerns were eased.  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 if both or one of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees expressed objections.  Reuters learned from a source familiar with the administration’s thinking, speaking on the condition anonymity, that the Obama administration had been working with Congress to address some of the Members’ initial concerns, and that helped to create the opportunity for the administration to proceed.  The timeline is unclear, but it is expected by August, US arms would reach the Supreme Military Council, the military wing of the Syrian opposition, and then be distributed to appropriate groups within the Free Syrian Army.  However, the House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers told Reuters that despite the consensus to support the Obama administration’s plan, he along with some other Members, both Republican and Democrat, still had strong reservations. 

Representative Adam Schiff, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, was among those Members who did not hear anything strong enough to convince him the Obama administration’s plans were viable.  Reuters quoted him as stating “It’s too late to affect the outcome with a small amount of arms.”  Representative Schiff also remarked “I think we would have to provide such a massive amount of arms, and additional military support to change the balance on the battlefield, that we would inevitably be drawn deeply into the civil war.”  Representative Schiff said “I think we also have to expect that some of the weapons we provide are going to get into the hands of those who would use them against us.”  Admitting his view on the committee was in the minority, Representative Schiff still felt that among many Americans, there was “little appetite for getting involved in a third [war],” after fighting two in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Reuters reported that the Intelligence Committee sessions on arming the rebels were classified and held in secret.  Without public reports or statements coming out of the secret hearings, knowing exactly what was said behind closed doors is nearly impossible. What most likely swayed most Members were not facts about the ongoing situation in Syria, but rather a plan of action under which the Obama administration felt its goals and Congressional goals could be accomplished in Syria.  Congressional goals in Syria are to help the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad and to place more pressure on his regime.  Congress requires that Free Syrian Army groups and members meet its criteria on human rights, terrorism, and nonproliferation of arms.  After examining the current situation in Syria, and concerns of Members such as Representative Schiff, a “guess” is made here on a plan the Obama administration very likely proposed to take on Syria before the Senate and House Intelligence Committees which led to a consensus to give the administration the green light.

The NATO’s Syria Assessment

Many military experts would agree with Representative Schiff’s statement that “It’s too late to affect the outcome with a small amount of arms.”  There is no indication that the situation on the ground in Syria has changed in favor of the Free Syrian Army.  Rather, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, fully acknowledged as recently as July 18th that “Currently the tide has shifted in his [Assad’s] favor.”  In a NATO assessment of the situation in Syria completed in July, it was determined that Assad’s forces have already ended any short-term or mid-term threat from the Syrian rebels.  It predicted that Assad’s forces, with Russian and Iranian support, would capture major Free Syrian Army strongholds with the exception of northern Syria by the end of 2013.  NATO, in consultation with US and EU intelligence services, concluded that the Free Syrian Army’s military campaign had failed over the past three months.  Officials said that the Syrian component of the Free Syrian Army had deteriorated dramatically since April and the point had been reached where it was difficult to distinguish who was determined to fight the Assad regime and who was simply out to collect a paycheck.  Moreover, NATO assessed that Syrians were not doing the bulk of the fighting against the Assad regime.  Rather, the majority of fighting was being done by foreign fighters, most of them affiliated with Al-Qaida.  It was NATO’s assessment that ostensibly resulted in a decision by several leading NATO countries to halt lethal weapons shipments for the Free Syrian Army.  In mid-July, Britain and France signaled their opposition to shipping any weapons to Syria.  Officials said that the two countries which until June were the most vocal supporters for arming the Free Syrian Army determined that any major weapons shipments would end up with Al-Qaida affiliated factions.  French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was quoted as saying, “There are certain conditions that need to be met before eventually sending weapons.”  Under these circumstances, the US decision to withhold shipments was sound.  Conditions on the ground could not have caused a change in opinion among Committee Members.

An Assessment from the US Intelligence Community

Statements coming from officials in the US intelligence community substantiate Representative Schiff’s concerns over the size and extent of US arming and involvement in Syria.  On July 20, 2013, the New York Times reported that David R. Shedd, the deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency issued one of the strongest public warnings about how the civil war in Syria has deteriorated, and he seemed to imply that the response from the US and its allies had so far been lacking. According to the New York Times, the 31-year intelligence veteran warned at the Aspen Security Forum, an annual meeting on security issues, that the Syrian conflict could last “many, many months to multiple years,” and described a situation that would most likely worsen regardless of whether the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fell.  Shedd described two different scenarios for Syria’s future, both of which he said predicted far more violence and killing. He reportedly stated, “If Bashar [al-]Assad were to succeed, he will be a more ruthless leader who will live with a legacy of tens of thousands of his civilians killed under him.”   Shedd went on to explain that a Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict could grow if Mr. Assad’s government fell or he was killed.  The New York Times quoted Shedd as saying, “If he loses and goes to an enclave inside there, I think there will be ongoing civil war for years to come,” noting that more radical elements like the Nusra Front would fight to control parts of the country. “They will fight for that space. They’re there for the long haul.”  The New York Times noted Shedd’s assessment of the US ability to draw distinctions among an opposition that he said numbered about 1,200 groups.  Shedd was said to have suggested that modest interventions were unlikely to make a significant difference at a time when Mr. Assad’s army has been reclaiming territory on the battlefield, with the support of Iran, Russia and Hezbollah, and when the Free Syrian Army is bitterly divided   He also pointed to the resurgence of the Islamic militant factions.  Shedd also reportedly suggested that in addition to strengthening the more secular groups of the fractious Syrian opposition — which the Obama administration has promised to arm with weapons and ammunition — the West would have to directly confront more radical Islamist elements. But he did not say how that could be accomplished.  Shedd stated “The reality is that, left unchecked, they will become bigger.”  He emphasized that “Over the last two years they’ve grown in size, they’ve grown in capability, and ruthlessly have grown in effectiveness.”   Clearly, unde Shedd’s assessment, mainstream Free Syrian Army groups are not getting stronger or achieving much.  Rather, Islamic militant factions have gained the upper-hand over mainstream Syrian groups and are preparing to shape Syria’s future.  These facts could not have caused a change of thinking within the Congress to begin arms shipments.

The Islamic Militant Threat to the US Syrian Effort

Given the present size and strength of Al-Qaida affiliated Islamic militant factions in Syria, Representative Schiff’s concerns, as well as those of US allied that Western arms would fall into the hands of Islamic militants that caused many countries to delay their arms deliveries, are legitimate.  Representative Schiff was quoted as saying “I think we also have to expect that some of the weapons we provide are going to get into the hands of those [Al-Nusra Front] who would use them against us.”  In early 2012, many Islamic militant factions, particularly the Salafist/Jihaddis, were operating underground in Syria.  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 hot spot for Al-Qaida activity. 

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.  Yet, lately, they have been known best by their rogue acts within Free Syrian Army territory.  They include attacks upon mainstream Free Syrian Army groups, killing popular commanders and fighters.  Islamic militant factions have attempted to impose their strict conception of Islamic law, attempting to transform Syrian society, being particularly harsh with Syrian women, and sometimes even carrying out summary public executions on Syrian citizens.  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 long 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.  Although mainstream Free Syrian Army groups may want to create the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Syria, Islamic militant factions seek to create an Islamic state.  Clashes between Islamist militant factions and Kurdish militias spread to a second Syrian province last weekend.  As infighting continues, more Islamic militants and Salafist/Jihaddis are pouring into Syria.  Under the conditions Jabhat Al-Nusra and other Islamic factions have created in Free Syrian Army territory and with their strength, it would be reckless for any country to send arms to the opposition.  As long as this situation persisted, Congress would hardly have been willing to allow any arms deliveries.

US Military Options in Syria

An unclassified assessment of military options the US could take if requested by the Obama administration are not quick and easy and would dramatically increase US costs and risk of loss in Syria.  That supports Representative Schiff’s concerns that by providing “additional military support to change the balance on the battlefield . . . we would inevitably be drawn deeply into the civil war.”  On July 22, 2013, Reuters reported that US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, in a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee outlined and assessed five options he said the US military was prepared to undertake: training and advising the opposition, conducting limited stand-off strikes, establishing a no-fly zone, establishing buffer zones and controlling chemical arms.  According to General Dempsey, the options he provided would likely further the narrow military objective of helping the opposition and placing more pressure on the regime.  However, the general explained “We have learned from the past 10 years, however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state. We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action.”

The US military’s current role in the conflict is limited to delivering humanitarian aid, providing security assistance to Syria’s neighbors and providing nonlethal help to the Syrian opposition. The US military has an operational headquarters unit in Jordan along with other assets, including F-16 jets.  Among the options for action provided by General Dempsey were the following: 1) US military personnel could train, advise and assist the Free Syrian Army. That mission could include weapons training, tactical planning and intelligence and logistics assistance, General Dempsey explained.  He estimated the cost at $500 million a year (General Dempsey did not indicate whether that was a figure based on very immediate action or a plan to train and equip the Free Syrian Army over a period of months); 2) the US could conduct limited stand-off strikes. General Dempsey said this option would use air and missile strikes to attack Syrian air defenses, military forces and command structure to damage the Assad government’s ability to wage war. The cost could run a billion dollars a month and risk retaliatory strikes and civilian casualties; 3) the US could establish a no-fly zone. General Dempsey said a no-fly zone would require hundreds of strike aircraft and support units. The cost could be a billion dollars a month and would risk the loss of US planes while potentially failing to reduce violence because Syria relies mainly on surface arms rather than air power; 4) the US troops  could establish buffer zones. General Dempsey said this option would use force to establish safe zones inside Syria where the opposition could train and organize while being protected from attack by government forces. He said the cost would be over a billion dollars a month and could improve opposition capabilities over time.  However, the zones could become targets for Syrian attack; and 5) General Dempsey stated lethal force could be used to prevent proliferation of chemical weapons and to destroy Syria’s “massive stockpile” of the weapons. He said the option would require hundreds of aircraft as well as personnel on the ground and could cost over a billion dollars per month.  These options for Syria accompanied by costs and risks would have likely persuaded the Members to give the administration a green light for it plans.  Rather, they would most likely cause the Members to further deliberate before taking any steps.

“Humanitarian Appeals” for Arming the Syrian Opposition

While Representative Schiff was correct in his view that the US public was not interested in engaging in a new war, appeals to the public and officials for the US to become more involved in Syria have been continually made by advocates for the Syrian opposition.  In a surprisingly emotional editorial in the Washington Post on July 17, 2013, journalist David Ignatius admonished the Obama administration for failing to rush arm and supplies to the Free Syrian Army and appealed for immediate assistance to be sent.  He explained how the failed to provide aid defined the US in the world as a nation unwilling to stand by its friends and fulfill its promises.  Ignatius pointed to the fact that it was nearly two years ago, on Aug. 18, 2011, when President Obama first proclaimed, “The time has come for President Assad to step aside.”  Ignatius sates that did not back up his call for regime change with any specific plan, but only furthered his position by repeating the “Assad must go” theme regularly ever since.  Ignatius noted that that the CIA began working with the Syrian opposition in 2011 and has been providing training and other assistance given some impression that greater aid was to come.  Ignatius recalled the June 13th the White House announcement that it would provide militaryaid to the Syran opposition because the Assad regime had crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons, causing the rebels began preparing warehouses to receive the promised shipments. Ignatius asks readers “Imagine for the moment that you are a Syrian rebel fighter who has been risking his life for two years in the hope that Obama was sincere about helping a moderate opposition prevail not just against Assad but against the jihadists who want to run the country. Now you learn that Washington is having second thoughts.”  Ignatius quoted from a message sent by one opposition member: “I am about to quit, as long as there is no light in the end of the tunnel from the US government. At least if I quit, I will feel that I am not part of this silly act we are in.” Ignatius also includes an angry quote from General Salim Idriss, commander in chief of the Free Syrian Army in the Daily Telegraph, which stated, “The West promises and promises.  This is a joke now. . . . What are our friends in the West waiting for?  For Iran and Hezbollah to kill all the Syrian people?”  He states Ignatius said “What’s happening in Syria isn’t a pretty sight, as the moderates struggle to survive without the expected Western aid.”  This unusually emotional and very partisan appeal by Ignatius, and others like it, that claimed the US has abandoned the Syrian opposition fighters it promised to stand by, would very likely strike a chord among Members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees.  However, with budgetary concerns and the uncertainty over the situation in Syria, such an appeal while understood and heartfelt, could not cause the Committees to enter to US into a new war with all of the consequences that would entail.

The Administration’s Likely Proposal to the Intelligence Committees: A Purge in the Free Syrian Army

What seems to stand out from all of this is that the US is really unable to do the things it wants to do in Syria.  The main stumbling block to achieving the goals of both the Obama administration and Congress is the Islamic militant groups.  That is the situation that needs change.  It is somewhat likely that a plan of action to shape events on the ground in Syria was presented to the Congress, and was given the green light.  Jabhat Al-Nusra may have done the bulk of the fighting and account for the most of the Free Syrian Army’s successes, however, the group would be unable to cooperate with mainstream Further, Islamic militant factions intensify their attacks upon mainstream Free Syrian Army groups and Kurdish groups.  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.  As it was explained on in a July 11, 2013 post entitled, “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” the Obama administration would need to do more than meet its promise to arm the Free Syrian Army with weapons and ammunition. 

Only by intervening covertly in support of mainstream elements against Islamic militant factions would mainstream Free Syrian Army groups have a remote chance of being positioned to defeat Assad’s forces.  Taking this step would enlarge the US role in the Syrian conflict.  However, it would place the US in a position to do much more on behalf of the Free Syrian Army.  By purging rogue Islamic militants factions, the US and its allies could halt the deterioration of the Free Syrian Army, properly organize its remaining groups as a military force, establish unit cohesion and coordination between units, improve their fighting capabilities, and enhancing their combat power with better arms.  This step would be in line with the statements of David Shedd of the Defense Intelligence Agency that in addition to strengthening the more secular groups of the fractious Syrian opposition, the West would have to directly confront more radical Islamist elements.  This step would also be in line with the military option outlined by General Dempsey in which US military personnel could train, advise, and “assist” the Free Syrian Army.  With about 1200 groups in the Free Syrian Army, it is conceivable that an Islamic militant faction may evade the purge and secure US arms.  However, that risk can be minimized or possibly eliminated as long as the intelligence services of the US, the EU, Arab states, and the Supreme Military Council work in unison to identify Islamic militants in the Free Syrian Army ranks.

(Once operations are underway, perhaps Hezbollah, whose military-wing was recently placed on the EU’s terrorist blacklist, might also be subjected to kinetic strikes by US, EU, and Arab state forces, with the goal of creating more favorable odds for the Free Syrian Army on the battlefield and placing pressure on the Assad regime..)

It is also somewhat likely that a follow-on plan to develop and conduct Free Syrian Army operations without the targeted Islamic militant factions would have been proposed to Congress.  Sufficient numbers of mainstream fighters would need to be trained, equipped and fielded to cover any gaps created by the purged Islamic militant groups.  US efforts could be coordinated with allied intelligence services and special operations forces to support and advise the Free Syrian Army units on the ground in Syria.  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 actually fight alongside the Free Syrian Army against Assad’s forces and allies.  At that time, the US could also engage in a rapid and robust training and equipping of the Free Syrian Army. 

As it was explained on on July 11th, with the Free Syrian Army facing the possibility of folding under the weight of the clashes caused by the Islamic militants, and civilian deaths now exceeding 100,000 as a result of the conflict, time is of the essence.  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.  Supporting the mainstream groups and purging undesirable factions would be a clear demonstration of the continued support of the US and the Friends of Syria for positive change in Syria.  Yet, this step would not be taken just as a matter of principle.  A purge is the best option to take if supporting and utilizing the Free Syrian Army remains the goal of the US, EU, and Arab states. The Congressional Intelligence committees needed to make a decision on Syria.  With their ovesight, the plan should succeed.  While it cannot be confirmed anything like this plan was actually proposed, it might be the very course of action the US should take.

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