These youthful fighters (above) are members of the abominable Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). ISIS poses as great a danger to its erstwhile allies, the Syrian opposition, as the Assad regime. A US-led coalition is conducting airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. If the Syrian opposition ever hoped to find advantage over those groups, its military leaders must find ways to capitalize on this new situation.
In an October 2, 2014, Washington Post op-ed entitled, “In Syria, the United States Is Bombing Friend and Foe Alike”, Mohammed Alaa Ghanem explained that US-led airstrikes have had an important positive impact against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State as he refers to it. He confirmed that ISIS has suffered real losses, and there have been fewer civilian deaths now that the Syrian Armed Forces’ aerial monopoly is broken. However, Ghanem who is a senior political adviser and government relations director for the Syrian American Council, board member of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, and fellow at the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, also claimed that substantial dangers were associated with the air campaign, pointing to a rise in anti-US sentiment in western Syria and the failure of airstrikes to halt ISIS’ movement toward Baghdad. Expressing the general sentiment of Syrian opposition members, Ghanem claimed that to preserve the viability of its strategy, the US must complement its airstrikes with firm support, in both word and deed, to “moderate anti-Islamic State Syrian opposition fighters.” Ghanem insisted that airstrikes alone will not defeat the ISIS. He stated that only close coordination with mainstream Syrian opposition forces would accomplish this. He proferred that enabling mainstream opposition fighters to escalate ground attacks on the Islamic State’s western front would force ISIS to divert resources from Baghdad. Ghanem stated that unlike the Iraqi Army, mainstream opposition forces already have a record of rolling back ISIS forces. Ghanem found fault with the US-led coalition for failing to establish any significant coordination regarding airstrikes with the opposition.
It is disappointing to learn that Syrian opposition political officials are still making churlish complaints over assistance being provided by the US and other benefactors. Their “mantra” has been a demand for more arms and supplies for their forces and for greater things to be done, such as launching airstrikes against the Syrian Armed Forces to promote their success. Complaints are also often heard from senior commanders of the Supreme Military Council, the opposition’s military wing and commanders of their forces in the field, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as well. Their grievances belie the fact that the Syrian opposition military leaders, after three years of war, have failed to unify the many groups in the Free Syrian Army into a cohesive fighting force and have been unable, without foreign assistance, to enhance their fighters capabilities. They have been remiss in devising their own plans for the effective use of their forces against ISIS and the Syrian Armed Forces. How easy it is for the Syrian opposition to stand in judgement of the US and others, taking a position of moral superiority and declaring they are owed certain levels of assistance from them. From the beginning of their movement, Syrian opposition leaders should have been mature enough, and worldly wise enough, to understand that neither US nor any other country owed them anything. The Syrian opposition, its Supreme Military Council, and senior FSA commanders should expect more from themselves before demanding so much of others. With regard to the current situation in which a US-led coalition is hitting ISIS with airstrikes, Syrian opposition political and military leaders certainly must do more than offer lip service about their benefactors’ actions. They should consider how they might best act to capitalize on positive results with or without coordination with planners of the air campaign. If the opportunity arises, they should present proposals for coordinated action to their US government contacts. They should remain willing, even if alone, to do what is necessary to carry on their fight until final victory is achieved. Faber est suae quisque fortunae! (Every man is the artisan of his own fortunes!)
The Syrian Opposition’s Present Situation
The administration of US President Barack Obama decided to provide the Syrian opposition its support with the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by FSA advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. Yet, support would be kept within limits. The impatience of FSA commanders and fighters with the Obama administration over the level of its efforts is indeed well-known. Syrian opposition political and military leaders claim the size and scope of assistance is the reason behind their lack of significant success against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces and allies—the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), IRGC Quds Force, Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces militia, and Iraqi Shi’a militia brigades. However, the real problem has been the opposition, itself. The fight for democracy in Syria was supposed to be the opposition’s fight to win alone. However, very rapidly, Syrian opposition leaders discovered the entire undertaking was enormous and they found themselves well out of their depth. Simply keeping the opposition together politically has proven very difficult. Foreign diplomats must regularly act as mediators to hold the movement’s diverse groups together. Opposition military leaders have not shown any greater acumen unifying their forces. Moreover, FSA commanders have failed to display any impressive military capabilities. Many FSA units cannot perform in a military fashion.
What ISIS and other Islamic militant groups linked to Al-Qaeda such as Jabhat al-Nusra and its offshoot Khorasan have done is find advantage in the Syrian opposition’s failings. By attacking mainstream FSA units that have been trying to defeat Assad’s troops and allies, the Islamic militants have succeeded in making the Syrian opposition’s situation far worse. On top of the damage caused by their attacks on the FSA, Islamic militant groups have also committed countless attrocities against the Syrian people. The groups are not directed toward Syria’s transition to a democratic form of government. ISIS has included territory they hold in Syria as part of a massive Islamic State, an Islamic Caliphate, crossing into Iraq that is solely under their control, ruled under Sharia law. A syncretistic merger of mainstrean opposition and Islamic militant ideas on governance will never occur. ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamic militant groups were becoming stronger almost daily. Their strength had already passed the point at which mainstream Syrian oppositon forces could have contended with them.
US-led airstrikes, if unable to destroy those groups, will hopefully be able to degrade and displace them to a degree that they can no longer influence the political outcome in Syria. While FSA commanders may complain and even panic over the prospect of taking over the difficult battle lines at strategic points which ISIS and the other Islamic militant groups held, it is the only way to improve the FSA’s situation long-term. Indeed, only through on-going US-led airstrikes would the Syrian opposition ever have a chance of being positioned to succeed against the Assad regime.
What Syrian Opposition Leaders Should Be Doing
Following very public beheadings of Western citizens, ISIS was finally recognized in capitals around the world as a truly monstrous organization. It was referred to as a “death cult” by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot. Airstrikes, to a degree, have not as yet kept ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and similar Islamic militant groups at bay. Nevertheless, in time, they will. While the air campaign is developing, FSA commanders need to reconfigurate their forces to exploit positive effects of those airstrikes. They must find ways to maneuver their units against the Islamic militant groups and Assad’s forces. Even if ideally for the FSA commanders, airstrikes reached such an intensity that some air assets could be tasked to provide air support for FSA, those units would not be able to remain hunkered down while the work was done from the sky above. Once Islamic militant groups were destroyed or displaced in some areas by airstrikes, sufficient numbers of trained and equipped FSA fighters, perhaps a mix of veteran and newly trained recruits, would still need to be made ready to move into those group’s former positions. If FSA commanders have not completed any of these tasks because they were uncertain over how to proceed, they should have sought specific assistance from the US and other benefactors in organizing FSA fighters and units.
What Further US Assistance Might Look Like
As ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups are degraded, the US will be provided greater freedom to effectively organize FSA units as a military force, promote the development of greater cohesion and coordination among its units, improve FSA fighting capabilities, and enhance their combat power with better arms. All of these actions together will also provide FSA with a more immediate chance to position itself to defeat Assad’s forces. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is already steeped in the Syria situation as the US agency managing the training and arming of the FSA. CIA would likely be the organization tasked with any new mission to rapidly organize mainstream fighters to cover any strategic positions left open as a result of the destruction or displacement of Islamic militant groups that once held them. CIA officers already handling the stuation in Syria have a good awareness of what is happening on the ground and would able to track Islamic militant movements caused by airstrikes. With FSA support, they likely have been continuously collecting granular information on the Islamic militant groups, including the size of specific units, the locations of its fighters as they move. They likely have already gathered information on the backgrounds of individual fighters and commanders, unit capabilities, and supply depots. Data from CIA officers on the locations and activities of Islamic militant groups has undoubtedly contributed to the US-led air campaign. Important in a CIA directed effort against the Islamic militant groups would be to minimize the FSA combat power allocated to that secondary task. The bulk of FSA power would still be dedicated to fighting Assad.
Regarding possible air support for the FSA, CIA has drones available and other air assets that could be assigned to support the FSA and serve as a force multiplier. Overwatch for FSA units, as they reorganized and repositioned themselves, could be provided by drones or other CIA air assets. Whenever FSA units needed to engage ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, drones and air assets available to CIA could provide direct support. If CIA were to organize some FSA units to police ISIS and other Islamic militant fighters left in FSA territory after the collapse of their units, drones and other available CIA air assets could support that activity. Beyond human intelligence collection, the US gathers continuous signals and geospatial intelligence in Syria. Multiple streams could help CIA pinpoint and attack locations of leaders and units from ISIS and other groups even if they are dispersed by airstrikes. That information would also be very useful to CIA in providing close air support for FSA movement.
Having discussed what Syrian opposition leaders, the Supreme Military Council, and FSA commanders might do and propose, it is important to recognize that US military and intelligence planners, using their expertise based on careers that include continuous professional education and training and considerable experience in warfighting and intelligence operations, are very capable and know how to develop effective plans for action. They are aware of the capabilities of specific FSA commanders and units, the effectiveness of their weapons systems, and what would be the real possibility for success of any FSA operation. FSA commanders, regardless of their level of understanding of military theory or strategy, are outmatched by the degree of understanding senior US military and intelligence officers possess for the planning and execution of attacks coordinated with airstrikes. If ordered by the US President to present a plan for such an operation, senior military and intelligence planners would produce something that displays a high level of acumen and creativity, utilizing advanced technologies perhaps beyond what FSA commanders and their opponents might imagine.
Until that time comes, if it ever comes, the Syrian opposition must take the initiative to reinvigorate the FSA, motivate its fighters, develop a sense of unity among units, and draw up bold new plans to engage in dynamic action in the field. Authentic military leaders should be able to accomplish these tasks. The Syrian opposition may not be certain whether US airstrikes are a stroke of good luck or mean bad luck for it. However, whether it becomes either is in the hands of the Syrian opposition, itself.