The Syrian Air Force fighter jet, above, is bombing a neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus. Ironically, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with the goal of “saving” his country from the Syrian opposition movement, destroyed nearly every major city and town in it. After four years of conflict, US policy, instead of forcing Assad from power, has resulted in a three-way war with no end in sight.
According to a January 28, 2015 Reuters article entitled “Russia’s Lavrov Says Fighting ‘Terrorism’ Should Unite Syrian Opposition, Damascus”, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged members of the Syrian opposition movement and representatives from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at peace talks in Moscow to join forces to combat the threat of terrorism. While expectations of a breakthrough at the January 28th Moscow meeting were low, Russia hoped the talks would give impetus to a long-stalled peace process in the four year conflict. Lavrov said at the time, “We believe that the understanding by politicians and leading representatives of civil society of the necessity to join forces to combat this common threat (of terrorism) should become the key for the resurrection of the unity of the Syrian nation.” However, the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime are more interested in fighting one another than fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and other Islamic militant groups. Their mutual animus was also evinced when both sides failed to commit to the peace plan of UN mediator Staffan de Mistura that seeks to establish local fighting freezes throughout Syria. The fighting freezes would allow civilians to evacuate and humanitarian aid to be delivered.
In the 2008 Presidential Campaign, then candidate Senator Barack Obama admonished the administration of George W. Bush for engaging in military adventurism under the umbrella of the Global War on Terror. Yet, early on, the administration of President Barack Obama found itself unable to yield to the temptation of responding to some clarion call to cleanse the world of all ancient evils, ancient ills. In Syria, the Obama administration responded in support of the opposition which blossomed during the so-called Arab Spring. However, its commitment to the opposition has proven to be a snare and quite unsatisfying. The US public has become inured to perfunctory ramblings from administration officials that typically descend into specious statements about victory being attainable. Now those officials speak about Syria with enigmatic faces on. They do not register despair, but they are likely internalizing plenty of it over their long-unproductive Syria policy. The removal of Assad and his regime has been the expressed desire of the Obama administration. In an August 18, 2011 written statement, Obama said “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” However, after established a purpose, no genuine effort was made to achieve that purpose. The Obama administration’s actions indicated a lack of commitment to Syria. Its approach was inchoate. A number of formulaic protocols for assisting such movements were followed. There was never any intimation among officials that change was near. Rather, the Obama administration displayed a lack of situational awareness.
The Obama administration was remiss on many aspects of the Syria case. When success is possible, waiting with patience and fortitude, is reasonable. The record on Syria makes questionable any decision to wait any longer to achieve success taking the same course of action. Experienced eyes have grown weary over time waiting for some declaration of triumph, signs of progress, or the proposal of a genuine solution. Looking back at the approach on Syria with “young (alert) eyes” shows its true course and reveals much of the “failure” has been self-inflicted. The Syria policy should take a new turn. Some regrettable but necessary choices need to be made. Conscientia mille testes! (Moral self-knowledge equals a thousand witnesses!)
Going-in with the Syrian Opposition Movement: The First Mistake?
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 Free Syrian Army (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 FSA was placed under the military-wing of the opposition, the Supreme Military Council (SMC), commanded by Salim Idriss. FSA’s ranks quickly grew to 15,000 fighters on the ground. Yet, SMC had difficulties establishing real cooperation and coordination among the mixed-bag of FSA units. The units did not admire or obey civilian opposition leaders. Groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra progressively functioned more independently. Oddly, Western governments monitoring the situation closely saw no danger. Rather, they began to examine the SNC and SMC as the core of a new political and military leadership in Syria. States such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia even began secretly delivering tons of arms to the FSA. After UN and Arab League joint special envoy, Kofi Annan, failed in his effort to create a ceasefire, more states, the US included, began to consider ways to support the SMC and FSA. International military intervention was ruled out in a March 2012 meeting in Cairo by the Arab League. However, Assad was asked to step down and pass his power to his vice-president and an expansion of the Syria monitoring mission was proposed. Assad rejected these proposals, but SNC and SMC rejected them also. In the midst of a considerable international response in their favor, SNC and SMC members argued over policies and approaches. Arguments became a regular feature of opposition meetings. Yet, the shortcomings of the opposition had no discernible impact on international supporters. Conferences held by the US, EU, and Arab states to decide how to aid them held in Doha, Qatar, and Tunis, Tunisia. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton created the “Friends of Syria” designated to stand with the people of Syria and not the government. Even 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. The US demanded that Assad not be allowed a place in the transitional government. That communiqué threw the West in direct support of the opposition. It was believed within the Obama administration that Assad would simply fall away. Officials expressed statements such as: “Assad is toast!”; “The winds of change would sweep Assad off the stage!”; and, “Nature would take its course!” Yet, that delusion did not touch reality at any point. Western analyses that evenly matched FSA and the Syrian Armed Forces were wrong. The situation was always tilted in Assad’s favor. Culpa lata! (Gross negligence!)
The FSA: Outgunned and Outmatched
The FSA’s size, relative to Assad’s forces was meager. It was not organized for decisive action, lacked real military power, possessing no high-tech or heavy weapons, and was unable to march on Damascus to remove Assad. The Syrian Army had considerable size, strength, and capabilities. At the civil war’s outset, the International Institute for Strategic Studies declared Syrian Army forces stood at 50,000 loyal forces mainly among Allawite Special Forces, the Republican Guard, and the 3rd and 4th Divisions. However, other analyses, taking into consideration the ranks of the security forces are counted as a whole, including the Mukhabarat or Intelligence organizations, the police, and paramilitaries/street gangs (shabiha), the number rose 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), the 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, further enhanced the force. Israeli analysts had estimated that 4,000 Iranian officers and men from the IRGC, Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and Quds Force were on the ground. The Iranians were ready to fight alongside the Syrian Army, and did so at Qusayr, Homs, and Damascus much as they fought alongside the Bosnian and Herzegovina Armija from 1994 to 1995. Hezbollah alleges it went into Syria from Lebanon with 4,000 fighters once Iran began to commit forces. In a NATO assessment of the situation in Syria completed in July 2013, 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 varied support from Russia and Iran, would capture major FSA strongholds with the exception of northern Syria by the end of 2013. NATO concluded that during the spring, the FSA’s military campaign had failed. A dramatic deterioration of the FSA’s Syrian component reportedly began in April 2013. The point was reached where it was difficult to distinguish who wanted to fight the Assad regime and who was simply out to collect a paycheck. More importantly, NATO claimed then that Syrians were not doing the bulk of the fighting against the Assad regime. The majority of fighting was being done by foreign fighters of Islamic militant groups, chiefly ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. NATO’s assessment impacted the decision by leading NATO countries to suspend lethal weapons shipments for the FSA. In mid-July, the United Kingdom and France, once the most vocal supporters for arming the FSA, signaled their opposition to shipping any weapons to Syria fearing the shipments might end up with ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra. De fumo in flammam! (Out of the smoke, into the flame!)
The February 2013 photo of Homs, Syria, above, provides a snapshot of the destruction that exists in Syria’s cities and towns. The Syria of 2011, when the civil war began, no longer exists. No matter who in control Syria whenever peace comes, they will face a colossal reconstruction effort of astronomical cost.
The Central Intelligence Agency’s Role: Limited and Exposed
On March 21, 2013, it was revealed to the New York Times that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was playing a covert role in the air transport of arms and supplies for delivery in Syria. A former US official confirmed in anonymity that in early 2012, CIA Director, General David H. Petraeus, was instrumental in getting the airlift network moving and urged various countries to work together on it. Many journalists in 2012 had heard rumors about CIA’s activities. The airlift began on a small scale in early 2012, but expanded into a steady and much heavier flow. By the end of that year, it included more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi Arabian, and Qatari military-style cargo planes landing at Esenboga Airport near Ankara, and, to a lesser degree, at other Turkish and Jordanian airports. By facilitating the shipments, according to a US official, CIA was supposed to provide the US a degree of influence over the process. From offices at secret locations, CIA case officers helped the Arab states shop for weapons. Saudi Arabia acquired a large number of infantry weapons from Croatia. CIA tried to vet FSA commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrived. CIA was tasked to steer weapons away from Islamic militant groups, persuading donors to withhold weapons that could have severe consequences if they fell into their hands. Those weapons included portable antiaircraft missiles that might be used in future terrorist attacks on civilian aircraft. Yet, CIA relied on Turkey to handle the majority of oversight activities for the program. The scale of shipments from Turkey was very large. Transponders were affixed to trucks ferrying the military goods through Turkey which allowed shipments to be monitored as they moved by land into Syria. While the operation was alleged to be covert, it was also uncovered that senior White House officials were regularly briefed on the shipments. CIA, itself, declined to comment on the shipments or its role in them. Further, information on CIA’s Syria operation was revealed in the Wall Street Journal on June 26, 2013. According to the June 26th article, in addition to moving weapons to Jordan from a network of secret warehouses, CIA was engaged in a train and equip program for small groups of vetted, mainstream, FSA fighters. This information was offered by diplomats and US officials briefed on the plans. At the time, it was hoped that the supplies, related training of a few hundred of the FSA fighters, along with a push to mobilize arms deliveries from European and Arab allies, would allow the FSA to organize a unified offensive in August 2013 which was a pleasant and unchallenging fantasy. Cave quid dicis, quando, et cui! (Beware what you say, when, and to whom!)
Culpability of Arab States for the Rise of ISIS
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 FSA. The Arab states that participated in the NATO-led intervention in Libya, Operation Unified Protector, were emboldened by its success. Officials in many Arab states suggested, even as a late as 2012, that Syria would go the way of Libya. Qatar, which took the “lead Arab role” in the Libya operation, threw its financial wherewithal into supporting the opposition and take the lead Arab role in Syria, too. It rushed to develop loyal networks with the FSA and set the stage to influence events in Syria after the presumed fall of the Assad regime. Yet, acquiring the “loyal support” of FSA units was a very difficult undertaking. Many groups in the FSA, particularly Islamic militant groups, moved from alliance to alliance in search of funding and arms. Qatar, much as other Arab states pursuing their own interests, had a myopic view of the Syria landscape. They lacked experience in strategic maneuvering at a level required to positively influence events in Syria.
For Arab states, engaging in an effort to arm the FSA without a secure, steady supply of arms meant scouring 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 and flew them to Turkey as part of the FSA arms supply program set up by CIA. In Turkey, intelligence services helped to deliver the arms into Syria. Qatari unconventional warfare units were tasked to go into Syria and find factions to arm and supply, but Qatar also received assistance from Turkey in identifying recipients for a short while. Qatar’s distribution of arms aligned with the tide-turning FSA campaign in the northern province of Idlib and the campaign of ambushes, roadside bombs and attacks on isolated outposts that drove Assad forces from parts of the countryside. As Saudi Arabia joined the covert arming effort, Qatar expanded its operation to working with Lebanon, to bring weapons into Syria via the FSA supply hub at Qusayr. Qatar eventually turned to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to identify factions to support, leading to its ties with the Farouq brigades. It was Qatar’s links to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood that led to a rift with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia was adverse to anything related to that organization. The division between Qatar and Saudi Arabia led to further divisions within the political and military wings of the opposition. There would be violent clashes between Farouq brigade troops and fighters from ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. 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 SMC, but that did not occur. Crce credemus, hodie nihil! (Tomorrow we believe, but not today!)
This photo of Islamic militant fighters in Syria preparing to execute Syrian Army prisoners appeared on the front page of the New York Times on September 5, 2013. While Obama administration officials were predicting the Syrian opposition’s victory over the Assad regime, journalists and humanitarian aid and nongovernmental organizations were reporting ISIS atrocities and the realities on the ground.
What has stirred the Obama administration the most about ISIS is the hostage taking and murders US citizens and citizens of other countries. The matter actually brought Syria back to the forefront among foreign policy issues. After failed effort to secure massive ransoms by negotiations, US and other European, Asian, and Arab states’ citizens have been videotaped being beheaded. The whole process seems to be more of an amusement for ISIS members than anything else, forcing leaders to negotiate prices for the release of their people. Rescues have been attempted, and they have failed more often than not. Then there was the ISIS juggernaut that rolled through Iraq in June 2014, capturing large parts of the country’s western and northern provinces. That land was included in the Islamic Caliphate straddling the border of Syria and Iraq that ISIS created. ISIS did not always pose such a threat to global security and stability. In early 2012, there were many Islamic militant groups active underground in Syria. Two years of arms and support flowing into opposition forces from Western and Arab states allowed for their growth. ISIS was initially active in Syria under the auspices of their parent group the Islamic State of Iraq (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) for years prior to the Syrian civil war. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, itself, was formed following the US-led coalition’s initiation of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Its platform was the eastern region of Syria, bordering Iraq’s Al-Anbar Province, a hot spot for Al-Qaeda activity. In addition to being the best equipped, best-organized, and best-financed faction of the FSA for the balance of the civil war, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra led FSA assaults on key installations, air defense bases, and coastal and highway routes. They were also responsible for suicide attacks in civilian areas and assassinations of key Assad regime officials. They became a concern due to their rogue acts within FSA territory, to include intermittent attacks on mainstream FSA groups, killing popular commanders and fighters.
Despite the best efforts to minimize the impact such acts were having on their Syria policy, it was eventually accepted by Western and Arab states that unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the opposition, Islamic militant groups as ISIS never intended to cease their struggle with the Assad regime under any peace agreement. The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the concepts and intent of the opposition’s leadership. While mainstream FSA forces were directed toward creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups only sought to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory. Indeed, before the Islamic Caliphate was established, in towns and villages of the large segments of Syria that ISIS and other Islamic militant groups’ controlled, the society was transformed by the imposition of a strict form of Sharia law on inhabitants. Infractions of that law resulted in merciless abuses and gruesome murders of Syrians. The groups were particularly harsh with Syrian women. Journalists and humanitarian aid and nongovernmental organizations reported ISIS atrocities. Captured Syrian military personnel and regime supporters were rarely spared. ISIS and the other groups were still viewed as FSA members until their intermittent clashes with mainstream units became open warfare.
While it was initially reasoned the FSA, with US supplied arms and training, would advance against the Assad regime and force him to the negotiation table where he would supposedly step down, the added pressure of the struggle with ISIS derailed the Syria effort of the Obama administration. The administration, nonetheless, pressed this issue with US Congress. The Obama administration sent its senior foreign and defense policy officials to Capitol Hill its tangled Syria policy with relevant committees. Yet, Members of Congress were skeptical of its “approach.” US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly told Congress on September 3, 2013, that “the opposition is getting stronger by the day,” however, Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, challenged Kerry’s assertions. At the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on September 4, 2013. McCaul asked Kerry: “Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time.” McCaul further stated, “And every time I get briefed on this it gets worse and worse, because the majority now of these rebel forces—and I say majority now—are radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world.” Kerry replied: “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaeda and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists . . . Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.” Although captivating and satisfying, Kerry’s figures even then seemed questionable. Using them, the administration took an approach that allowed the Syrian situation fall into a three-way conflict. Assistance continued to reach ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. SMC did not unify FSA units into a cohesive fighting force or devise plans for their effective use. Assad remained in power. Caveat consules ne quid detriment republica capiat! (Beware consuls that the commonwealth is not harmed!)
Obama’s Response to the 2013 Chemical Attack
The story of Obama’s August 23, 2013 response to the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians is well-known. After making very shrill accusations that the Assad regime had crossed his red-line by using chemical weapons, Obama made the now world renowned decision to back away from military action. Obama settled for a deal Russia proposed and negotiated with the US to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. Forcing Assad to surrender his chemical weapons stockpile was a big step. Russia, Iran, and China were as joyful as the US to get chemical weapons out of Assad’s hands. Assad, himself, may have recognized that having such weapons in country with little ability to exploit their potential, and sacrificing forces to protect them, was not doing his cause any good. True, Obama had the Pentagon provide options for calibrated military strikes in Syria. Airstrikes most likely would have achieved all military goals and had a strong educational effect on Assad. However, Obama was driven to resolve the crisis not by military action, but in a manner that would allow his worldview—that problems can be solved at the diplomatic table using reason and logic—to win through. Unable to quickly find that handle to the situation, uncertainty and indecisiveness ultimately prevailed. Obama was paralyzed by fears of a bitter scenario that would have the US and the region embroiled in a larger conflict as a result of such action. That was coupled with his concerns over the legal ramifications and international implications of military action against Assad regime. Obama strayed away from a path of assertive and decisive action. Many challenging foreign policy problems facing the administration became more difficult to manage as a result of his decision. Opponents of the US, including ISIS, became convinced that Obama was averse to using military power. Bonitas non est pessimis esse meliorem! (It is not goodness to be better than the worst!)
In July 2012, the Za’atari refugee camp, above, opened in Jordan. Of the 937,830 Syrian refugees in Jordan, 20 percent are now housed in the Za’atari and Azraq camps. Syrians situated in giant refugee camps in neighboring states, relocated as ex-patriots in Western and Arab states, or trapped in the clutches of ISIS and knocked around in the middle of the war zone, desperately desire a sustainable and secure peace in their country.
The Way Forward
What Obama and other Western leaders should know by now is that in coping with ISIS, they are dealing with real evil. It must be defeated. From the start, leaders of ISIS as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, should have been treated by the US as William Shakespeare’s “Man, proud man, dressed in a little brief authority.” They should have been made to shrivel under the weight of robust US military might. ISIS’ leaders instead were given the time, the space, and the resources to rehearse the implementation of their perverse notions of social order. The fight against ISIS is actually the result of the failed policy of battling Assad’s regime to force him to step down at the negotiating table. A new government in Syria favorable to the West could not have been established with the opposition in the beginning of the civil war and still cannot be established with it now. Without support, the opposition might continue to fight the Assad regime, but its efforts would not be fruitful. Similarly, the US effort to juggle three, albeit related, conflicts in Syria will never bear fruit. The Assad regime, the opposition, and ISIS, have each contributed to the destruction of the lives of the Syrian people. Assad is on a list of war crimes suspects that was handed to the International Criminal Court. Given the choice to deny, attack or embrace the Assad regime, the US may choose reluctantly “to embrace (tolerate)” it incrementally. The war has transformed Syria, politically, militarily, economically, socially, and culturally. The Syria of 2011 no longer exists. For the Syrian people, some trapped in the clutches of ISIS and knocked around in the middle of the war zone, others situated in giant refugee camps in neighboring states, or relocated as ex-patriots in Western and Arab states, a sustainable and secure peace in their country, would be the best solution. Ad verecundiam! (Appeal to modesty in an argument!)
Assad is not immortal. His regime, under great strain and facing endless warfare, may not survive in the long-run. Assad’s benefactors in Moscow and Tehran may eventually grow fatigued with high-expenditures and losses without advancement of their cause. To the extent that Assad would face heavy battles with ISIS, the watchful eyes of Israel, and the prospect of a decades-long, very expensive, reconstruction effort wherever he is able to regain territory, his regime will be contained. More so than the opposition, the Assad regime can contribute to the fight against ISIS in Syria. Contact with Assad regarding ISIS may kindle genuine cooperation from him on other issues. Assad stated contact already exists on US-led airstrikes against ISIS in Syria via Iraqi officials. Perhaps that is the best way for the Obama administration to handle the situation considering the primacy the US must give to, and role it must play in, the ISIS fight.