As the US Syria Policy Nears Failure, a Top US Syria Hand Offers Some Ideas

At, we seek to get beyond the “us-them” simplicities of foreign and defense policy issues and attempt to shed light upon the players and ideas that are moving events forward.  We collect articles, comments, and speeches, and interpret their meaning, determine their relative value to an issue at hand.  We then present our assessments to those who read our blog.  On October 25, 2013, I had the opportunity to attend a “not for attribution” presentation of a “top US Syria hand” at a renowned foreign policy think tank and membership organization in New York.  He provided advice on the transition process in Syria.  He was tapped for that role in the Syria process due to his extensive experience in the US Army, in the Defense Department, and in the State Department handling Middle East issues and his direct experience with Syria itself.  The views expressed by the speaker were forthright and at times surprising. They shed light on how and why the negotiation process has reached its current state.

Those attending the presentation by the speaker were informed in advance that the presentation was “not-for-attribution”, and no reference to his identity could be made.  (He will be referred to in this post as “the speaker.”) Arresting my urge to reveal the expert’s name has been made more difficult since I sense the perspectives the speaker offered would be more meaningful for our readers.  Moreover, it would prevent my report of his perspectives as one more recounting of the views of an anonymous, highly-placed, Obama administration official.  It is hoped that the majority of our readers will be able to consider the comments and reflect on the meaning with regard to the US policy on Syria.  Indeed, they allow one to conclude that US efforts would unlikely result in a peaceful resolution in Syria and an agreement on a transitional government in Syria that would not include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. .

The Syrian Civil War

Regarding the Syrian civil War, the speaker noted that the Syrian civil war was appalling in terms of the devastation and humanitarian crisis created.  There are over three million refugees residing outside of Syria. According to figures he acquired from the UN, there have been well over 150,000 civilians killed in the fighting.  On the ground, a de facto partition status existed.  In the western part of Syria, Assad has consolidated power. In the east, localized power centers exist, along with Jihadist linked to Al-Qaida.  In the northwest, Kurds have established a relatively autonomous area which is defending itself mostly from Jihadist groups.

The speaker noted that calling the Syrian conflict a civil war is misleading to most because it conjures the idea of a war of military engagements as in the US Civil War (1861-1865).  Although there are occasional engagements of military units in combat in urban areas, the speaker made it clear that the Syrian Civil War is in fact a war on civilians.  This has led to an enormous humanitarian catastrophe in which ethnic cleansing, extra-judicial executions, detentions, torture, injuries, rape, homelessness, starvation, sanitation, and disease, to name a few problems, were evident.

The speaker explained that a nationalist opposition movement had initiated the protests against the Assad regime and the civil war.  The nationalist movement, he point out, adhered to the idea of a Syrian identity based on citizenship, not religion or ethnicity.  However, this is no longer heard.  According to him, Jihadists have marginalized the nationalist opposition movement that.  He reported that the three main Jihadist units, comprised of many foreigners, were concentrating their efforts against Syrian civilians.  That has included the detentions, torture, and executions, already mentioned and deprivations of essentials for survival have been Jihadist tactics.  Yet, the speaker felt that the Assad’s regime use of lethal military force against civilians has been even more damaging.  The speaker explained that the humanitarian crisis was due to the Assad regime’s policy of using fire from artillery, rocket, jets, and helicopters in the midst of civilian areas without targeting.  It has been nothing but a terror campaign aimed at civilians.  Getting foreign humanitarian aid through to Syrian opposition held territory to deal with the multitude of suffering civilians has been impossible.  The regime will not allow this.

The speaker pointed to the fact that Russia and Iran were providing a great deal of support to the Assad regime.  However, he pointed to the fact that large sums of money were being providing to the Jihadists from Arab states, especially Kuwait at the moment.  Wanting to respond to violence by the Assad against their communities, Syrian men are drawn to opposition units that have sufficient resources to make an impact on the battlefield.  Those units are predominantly the Jihadist units.

To arrest the problem of the jihadist units, the US has initiated an effort to arm the Supreme Military Council (SMC), the military wing of the Syrian opposition.  Its commander in chief, General Salim Idris, would be the recipient of US funds, arms, and supplies, which he would be responsible for distributing the assistance among moderate, secular and capable Free Syrian Army units.  Since that effort began, the speaker noted that 13 Jihadist organizations have declared war on the Syrian National Council, the main political-wing of the opposition. The Jihadists are less engaged against Assad and more involved with establishing Islamist governments ruled under sharia law in areas under their control.  Nevertheless, the Obama administration still wants to focus on the SMC, hoping it will provide shares of aid to responsible groups.  The speaker felt the results of that effort had been lacking.  US officials allegedly revealed to the speaker that it is unknown whether that approach works or will ever have an impact.  Yet, the US insists on this approach.


The Syrian chemical weapons agreement was viewed by the speaker as a good thing.  He alleged that all parties involved in Syria believed that it was good to see the Assad regime stripped of its inventory.  He saw the real challenge as being how to bridge the diplomatic process on chemical weapons agreement to the political process on Syria.  The speaker felt, however, that Assad regime’s chemical weapons use and stockpile was the top of an ugly ice berg and as long as the Assad regime remained in place and the large scale slaughter of civilians continued, it was hard to see how the diplomatic process could take hold in Syria.

The speaker stated that the Geneva process for Syria has presented as problem for the US Secretary of State John Kerry.  The aims of the process are to produce a negotiated, mutually consented transitional government in Damascus with full governing powers.  Geneva II set for November 23 and 24, 2013 will address transition in Syria.  The speaker, who was present at the Geneva conference on Syria on June 2012, revealed that consensus existed for transitional talks.  He noted, however, that consensus evaporated soon after that. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was not mentioned in the June 30, 2012 communiqué of foreign powers among the conference participants. He lamented that this was a critical mistake because in Syria, all powers reside in the person of Assad.  No deals could be made unless they had the approval of Assad.  As of now, according to the speaker, at Geneva II, Assad’s presidency also will not be on the table.  That is problematic because it allows Assad to still hold power.  The speaker indicated that without Assad’s leadership on the table, nothing can be accomplished at Geneva II.  He was certain that Russia will support the Assad regime’s position.  In his opinion, the greatest threat to the Assad regime to date was the threat of US airstrike due to its September 21, 2013 chemical weapons use.  However, the Assad regime dodged that threat.  He felt that the Assad regime now has no interest in transitioning itself out of power any time soon

Kerry will have trouble getting the Syrian opposition to come to Geneva II according to the speaker.  The Syrian opposition sees its constituency pounded by Syrian armed forces.  On the battlefield, the speaker observed that the Syrian opposition was losing in real terms.  The speaker doubted the Syrian opposition would come to the talks only to hear a lecture from Assad regime representatives.  The Assad regime has agreed to send a delegation to the talks led by the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Moallem.  To remedy this problem, in part, the speaker explained Kerry developed the “London 11.”  The London 11 serves to assure the Syrian opposition that the dialogue between its representatives and the Assad regime’s representatives will be about transition.  The speaker explained that the purpose of Geneva II must be affirmed by both parties.  However, for these reasons, he felt that Geneva II may not happen if the Assad regime does not reaffirm the purpose of the meeting.  The speaker noted that the Syrian opposition would meet in Istanbul to discuss the talks.  Yet, the Syrian National Council, which the speaker called the main political group of the Syrian opposition, said that it will not attend Geneva II and would not come even if a decision is made in Istanbul for all members of the Syrian opposition to attend.  The speaker noted that if the Assad regime shows up without wanting to discuss transition, and if Russia lends its support to the Assad regime’s position, the Geneva talks will fail.  The Syrian opposition will be more frustrated than it is now.  If diplomacy fails, the Assad regime may continue what it is doing with security assistance from Russia and Iran, as long as it is not using chemical weapons.

Using Military Power

What troubled the speaker about all of this was that the Obama administration was mostly concerned with Syria as an arms control problem which was simply a convenient approach to the issue.  The speaker viewed the problem as being much greater.  He did not believe that there could be some nuanced escape for Obama on Syria.  The speaker believed that Obama was caught in Syria just as US President Harry Truman was caught in Korea in 1950.  The speaker stated Obama was skeptical that military force would be useful in the Syrian context.  The speaker claimed this has been a fact since the civil war began.  According to the speaker, within the Obama administration, it was truly believed that Assad would simply fall away.  He explained by pointing to statements often expressed by officials about Assad: “Assad is toast!”; “The winds of change would sweep Assad off the stage!”; and, “Nature would take its course!” In his famous August 16, 2011 speech, Obama a made the direct statement, “Assad must go!”  The speaker explained that for the White House, it is important for the president to be on the right side of history.  Yet, he notes that there is also a fear to act.  There is concern that any sophisticated aid, in significant amounts, might end up in the wrong hands.

According to the speaker, the fact that the US effort in Syria was not in the hands of the Defense Department is telling.  The speaker claimed that only the Defense Department could handle the large scale delivery of military assistance to Syrian rebels and their training.  He saw the current effort as piecemeal, with only fifteen to twenty rebels being trained at a time.

Further the speaker pointed to the fact that no clear direction exists on Syria.  A national security directive providing clear objectives has not been produced.  The only objective annunciated so far has been to do whatever may support a decision by Assad to leave.  The speaker believed a national security directive would only put the administration on a road toward intervention that it did not want to be on.  As a political matter, the Obama administration recognized that winning Syria is not a goal of the US taxpayer. The US needs to formulate alternative responses in Syria that do not put civilians at risk.  The speaker believed the best bet for the US on Syria would have been a multifaceted strategy.

The Speaker’s Suggestions on the US Policy on Syria

The Speaker offered five ideas on how to approach the Syria issue.  First, he felt Kerry should pursue Geneva II as far as it goes.  Kerry must keep his eye on the purpose of Geneva II which is to launch political transition in Syria and put Assad out of business.  If Geneva II does not work, the process needs to be abandoned.

Second, the speaker suggested de-escalation as a possible partial remedy to Syria.  De-escalation was proposed before the peace process began.  It was among the preconditions Kofi Annan, the initial UN special envoy to the Syrian peace process, required the parties meet on the ground before a negotiation process could begin.  Those precondition also included mutual disengagement (ceasefire); no mass terror; and, news media access.  De-escalation was also mentioned in the communiqué of the London 11.

Third, while the speaker believed a political solution should be sought in Syria which included Assad’s removal from power.  He noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted Assad to preside in office for reasons that transcend Syria.  Assad managed to dodge his fall when airstrikes were averted by the Russians.  Russians have pushed the view that Assad did not launch chemical attacks, but the Jihadists in the Syrian opposition were responsible.  Once the US military strikes in response to the August 21st chemical attacks did not occur, Assad felt he would never have to leave.  The point Putin is trying to make is that Russia is on the rise again. Russia wants to be seen as supporting a friend to the end.  The world is asked to compare and contrast this approach with that of the US, with particular reference to former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.  The Iranians allegedly confided that to the speaker that they believed Assad used chemical weapons. The speaker claimed that he had a positive relationship with Iran due to his two-track work with Iran on other issues.  The Iranians allegedly told the speaker they were especially dismayed by this because of the terrible experience Iran had with chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War.  Nonetheless, for the Iranians, Syria provides a land bridge from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Hezbollah’s missiles are an important part of Iran’s response to Israel, if it acts aggressively toward Iran.

Fourth, the speaker believed military power could have a positive impact in Syria.  Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime believe there is a military solution in Syria.  Assad feels that he can hold out militarily with Russian and Iranian support.  However, the speaker admitted, the US believes that there is no politically acceptable military solution in Syria and that belief would be difficult to overcome.  He believes that military force could be useful to the extent that it could create a new military balance on the ground.  Apparently, some US officials sense it might be too late.

Fifth, the speaker believed that an effort needed to be made to prepare the Syrian opposition to govern in Syria.  The speaker explained that while the Syrian opposition has been recognized, no effort at all has been made to prepare it to govern in Syria. They do not stand as an alternative to the regime.  Until this is done, millions of Syrians will stay with Assad regime.  The speaker revealed that the Syrian opposition as the incoming leaders of the Syrian government in order to support the meeting in Morocco of the then new “Friends of Syria.”  No new attempt to do anything with the Syrian opposition has occurred since.  At the time the speaker made his presentation and for nearly three years, the current government in Damascus led by Assad is fully recognized by the US and the UN.  All power in Syria resides with Assad.


Given the speaker’s comments, it seems the US is not fully committed on Syria.  The removal of Assad and his regime have been the expressed desire of the Obama administration, but it has not been established as part of a national security directive.  The administration’s efforts to date have demonstrated a lack of interest in Syria’s outcome relative to efforts of Russia and Iran.  That lack of interest not only exists in the executive branch, but also in the legislative branch as evinced in the US Congressional debate on military strikes in Syria in early September 2013.

The US has recognized the Assad regime to this date, and has never hinted that it would withdraw its recognition of it while Assad was in power.  The Syrian opposition, among many of its problems, was never politically astute, and could not fully appreciate the limited extent of the US commitment.  The Syrian opposition, with all of its infighting and shortcomings, is not prepared to take power in Syria.  No shadow government has been formed.  It takes weeks for the group simply to organize its meetings in Istanbul, to which members often refuse to attend.  The Syrian National Council, itself, has threatened not to come to the nest meeting in Istanbul.

At times, the Syria effort by the US, EU, and Arab states has appeared more like an effort to hassle the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran.  Assad was forced to surrender his chemical weapons stockpile.  However, it was done with international consensus.  Russia, Iran, and China were just as happy as the US to get chemical weapons out of Assad’s hands.  Assad’s main concern perhaps is no longer US intervention, but the Jihadist’s hold of Syrian territory.  If there is a break down in the Geneva talks, Iranian generals in Syria, led by General (Sharlashkar) Qassem Suleimani, may ramp up their efforts.  With more sophisticated and determined support from Russia, the Assad regime may be able to keep pace with Iranian forces present and change not only the military balance, but the entire situation on the ground.  (The reduction of Jihadist forces in Syria may be an effort to which Western powers may eventually be willing to lend their support.)

Given all that the speaker said, it appears that Obama administration stands willing to let the entire Syrian episode pass, while continuing a small, questionable assistance effort.  It is somewhat unlikely the administration would ever broach the use military force in Syria again.  The situation in Syria may very well just be allowed to linger until the end of the Obama administration.  A new US administration may implement a policy in which the US is more invested in Syria.  That might be the only chance for the Syrian opposition would see the robust US support it wants so badly.  With regard to nature taking its course on Assad, it appears that course has not force him out of Damascus, but rathr, has allowed him to remain in power.


Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (above).  He directs Iran’s efforts in Syria from Damascus, coordinating with the heads of the Syrian armed forces, and Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a militia commanders. The failure of the Geneva II talks would present Suleimani with the opportunity to use all the military power available to him to destroy the Free Syrian Army and Jihadist units without the threat of US military intervention.

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.

Obama Emphasizes US Commitment to Syrian Rebels in Saudi Call, But He Can Still Change His Mind

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.

The Extent of US Loyalty to the Syrian Opposition May Be a Lackluster Investment of Arms

As a result of a finding that concluded the Assad regime used chemical weapons, the US would begin supplying the opposition forces with small arms and ammunition. A classified order was issued directing the Central Intelligence Agency to coordinate arming the rebels in concert with allies.

On Thursday, June 13, 2013, the White House announced that the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime had crossed a “red-line” US President Barack Obama set by using chemical weapons, sarin gas, against Syrian opposition forces, albeit in a limited fashion, on multiple occasions. This declaration was based on a US intelligence community assessment. As a result of the finding that concluded the Assad regime used chemical weapons, the US would begin supplying the opposition forces with small arms and ammunition. The Wall Street Journal reported a classified order was issued directing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to coordinate arming the rebels in concert with its allies. For General Salim Idriss, commander of the Syrian Military Council (SMC), this news should have inspired his fighters. Finally, US arms were being sent to them. Yet, the Syrian opposition, which includes General Idriss’ SMC, as its military wing, and the Syrian National Council (SNC), as its political wing, apparently already feels quite secure in its position with the international community against Assad’s regime. Moreover, the SNC and SMC behave as if they were an indispensible part of the Syrian issue for the US, the EU, Arab states, as well as with the UN. It would seem that the many problems of the SMC and SNC which are manifested in their attitudes, behavior, and capabilities, would make them far from certain about their standing with their benefactors. The willingness of some in the international community to ignore the opposition groups’ problems and continually reward the SNC and SMC has likely imbued them with such confidence in their situation.  The time may have come for them to stop feeling so certain about their position.  This is true not only because of their relative competencies, but because the Syria conflict seems to be aggravating existing rifts in US-Russia relations. The danger of a potential conflict between these major powers over Syria should cause benfactors of the SNC and SMC to better assess the potential impact of their support. It might be best now for the SNC and SMC, themselves, to consider how they truly fit into the foreign policies and national interests of their friends. Their cause and actions need to be more in sync with those interests. An immediate change toward a more appreciative and responsive approach to the efforts of the US, EU, and Arab states, and an effort to negotiate a settlement, should seen.

Recent reports on the SNC and SMC point to: disunity and disagreements; demands of preconditions for negotiations; the considerable weakness of the SMC’s force in the field the Free Syrian Army (FSA) relative to the Syrian Armed Forces and its allies on the ground; and, a presence and influence of Islamic militants in its ranks. As Joshua Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and a Syria expert was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as stating, “The extreme fragmentation of the opposition makes it impossible to do business with.” Understanding how the SNC and SMC were ever found by some in the international community to be worthy of an investment in money, personnel, and materiel in support of their struggle with the Assad regime, requires understanding the origins of the Syrian opposition movement. From the start, the international community greatly exaggerated the real potential of the SNC and SMC. This approach was driven by intelligence reports produced in the capitals ot the US, EU, and Arab states indicating that the Syrian conflict would not last long. The German intelligence service, the BND, for example, predicted the Assad regime’s imminent collapse in 2012. Vali Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, explained in the Chicago Tribune, at the time, the US believed that Assad would inevitably fall and intervention was not necessary. Despite the fact that there were armed militants in its number, the Syrian opposition movement, originally, was never prepared to overthrow President Assad and his regime through military action as a rebel group. 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 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 ranks grew to 15,000 fighters on the ground. Yet, the organization had serious problems. Joshua Landis has explained that “the militia heads on the ground in Syria don’t look up to or obey the civilian opposition leaders.” Even more, the SMC had difficulties establishing real cooperation and coordination during operations. The many groups at best displayed tolerance toward each other. Some Islamic militant groups steadily began functioning more independently. The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria and the Al-Nusra Front eventually became forces the SMC would have to reckon with. These problems were compounded by the fact that the FSA lacked real military power, in terms of fighters, heavy weapons, the ability to maneuver and authentic military acumen among its commanders. That meant the force would hardly be able to march on Damascus to remove Assad. What it could do is roam the countryside attacking the Syrian Army “guerilla-style” and take control of territory when the odds were in its favor.  However, the Syrian Army, rather than chase the rebels around the countryside, fell back to strongholds in order to minimize casualties and build up its strength with the assistance of its allies.

Western states, allegedly monitoring the situation closely, somehow saw these developments as very positive, and policy and decision makers oddly began to assess the SNC and SMC as a viable core for a new political and military leadership in Syria. Thinking of that type gained momentum, and eventually some states such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, began secretly delivering tons of arms to the FSA. When UN and Arab League joint special envoy Kofi Annan effort to create a ceasefire failed, more states, including the US, began to consider ways to support the SMC and FSA on the ground. Military intervention was ruled out in a March 2012 meeting in Cairo by the Arab League, but Assad also was asked to step down and pass his power to his vice-president and it was proposed that the monitoring mission in Syria be increased. Assad rejected all of that, but the SNC and SMC rejected it, too! As a newly formed movement and organization, it should have been considered foolhardy to reject the peace efforts of its benefactors. However, that is exactly what the SNC and SMC did. Despite the positive international response in favor of the SNC and SMC, arguments over policies and approaches among the diverse groups in the SNC became a regular feature of their meetings. It was well-observed in meetings established by the US, EU, and Arab states concerning the delivery of aid to them held in Doha, Qatar, and Tunis, Tunisia. Still, the divisions and shortcomings of the SNC and SMC had no negative impact on international supporters. Rather, at the same time, Qatar, Tunisia, and Morocco recalled their ambassadors from Damascus. Turkey issued a statement declaring it was running out of patience with Assad’s regime. Then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to create the “Friends of Syria” designated to stand with the people of Syria and not the government. 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. Most intriguing was the US demand that there would be no place for Assad in the transitional government. That communiqué threw the West firmly behind the burgeoning SNC and SMC.

In addition to the belief that Assad would inevitably fall and intervention was not necessary, international perspectives to the Syrian conflict were biased by the Libya episode. In Libya, a determined rebel force, supported by airpower for the US, EU, and Arab states, defeated the government forces of Muammar Qaddafi. There were also analyses that found the Syrian Armed Forces and the FSA somehow evenly matched, except the FSA lacked high-tech and heavy weapons. The truth could easily dispell this illusion. The opposing forces were not balanced at all, but rather, greatly tilted in the Assad regime’s favor. The Syrian Army has considerable size, strength, and capabilities. While official statistics say the Syrian Army had a strength of 220,000 troops when the war began, the International Institute for Strategic Studies believes that number has fallen to 50,000 loyal forces mainly among Allawite Special Forces, the Republican Guard, and the 3rd and 4th Divisions. However, other analysts have also estimated that when the ranks of the security forces are counted as a whole, including the Mukhabarat or Intelligence organizations, the police, and Shabiha or paramilitaries/street gangs, the number again rises 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), Iranian special forces or 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, and China further enhance the force. The size of the Russian military presence has not been specified, but in 2012, the Guardian concluded it was considerable. It is doubtful that the Russians will contribute ground forces for the fight. However, Russian advisers would unlikely move too far from S-300 rocket systems or any other advance weaponry their country allegedly has provided the Assad regime. Reports exist that say Russia will sell MiG-29 fighters to Syria and the Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, will soon be stationed in the Mediterranean. Israeli analysts had estimated that 4,000 Iranian officers and men from the IRGC, Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and IRGC-Quds Force were on the ground. Iran stated, however, it would deploy 4,000 IRGC troops to Syria. The Iranians would certainly be willing to fight alongside the Syrian Army much as they fought alongside and within the Bosnian and Herzegovina Armija from 1994 to 1995. Indeed, what may eventually be observed is Iranian units folding into Syrian Army units and placed under the command of Syrian Army officers. Hezbollah is already in the fight, with nearly 4,000 fighters in Syria, particularly within provinces bordering Lebanon. Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, vowed to propel Assad to victory.

There is no evidence that the SNC and SMC have evolved in any way that would cause one to assess that they were ready to take down Assad. The long-term bickering and in-fighting certainly is disconcerting. However, there are other issues. The commander of the SMC, General Salim Idriss, put his own character into question during a surprise visit to Syria made by US Senator John McCain (R-Arizona). At great personal risk, Senator McCain, a US political icon, went into Syria to observe the operations of the FSA and to enhance his ability to advocate in support for the organization with his colleagues in the US Congress. As the guest of General Idriss, Senator McCain should have been protected from any controversy or problems. Yet, General Idriss allowed Senator McCain to be photographed with Mohammed Nour, commander of the FSA’s Northern Storm Brigade. Nour had been implicated in the kidnapping of Lebanese Shi’a pilgrims in 2012. While denying Nour the opportunity to meet with Senator McCain may have put General Idriss in a difficult political situation with one of his commanders, he did not hesitate to create potential poblems for Senator McCain by doing so. General Idriss displayed an incredible lack of courtesy and respect toward the US Senator, and questionable judgement. Senator McCain, a gentleman, has shrugged off the incident. Yet, many Americans were incensed by his treatment. General Idriss’s behavior becomes a bit more understandable given feelings the FSA’s rank and file have openly expressed about the US. As an FSA member was quoted in the New York Times as stating, “We will accept support even from Satan to finish the Assad regime.” At the same time this was occurring, in Istanbul, the SNC and SMC, once again were engaged in considerable bickering and arguments over issues such as how many seats each group deserved. This was done, despite of the tireless work by US Secretary of State John Kerry to bring the Russians and the Assad regime to the table to talk. Some have called the SNC and SMC failure to respond to Kerry fully as Kerry’s flop. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The problem is not Secretary Kerry and his tireless work to establish a peace agreement. The problem is the SNC and SMC which the US supports, and now arms.

The CIA will have its hands full trying to arm the FSA. Its continued work in support of their cause will likely be met with further ingratitude. Having received arms from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, which the CIA helped deliver, General Idriss very publicly complained about the quality of the weapons his forces were receiving. He pleaded for “Western” anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles saying the weapons the FSA had were no match for the Syrian Army’s modern tanks and weapons systems. It was a rebuff to the Qatari, Saudi, and Turkish efforts. Those states were not selling the arms supplied, but giving them to the SMC and FSA. In any event, the present reality regarding military assistance is that the Russians and Iranians, through their military assistance to Assad’s regime, have raised the bar too high and too fast in the past two years in Syria for the US, EU, and Arab states to do anything substantial with high-tech or even heavy weapons at this point. General Idriss, in spite of the revolutionary zeal of his forces, should have been pragmatic enough to have recognized this fact. Perhaps to create some benefit for themselves, SMC leaders seek to collect Western anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles now in order to sell them later on the black market after victory or defeat. This would be one way in which the concern of Russian President Vladimir Putin about the weapons provided possibly surfacing in Europe, might be realized. Certainly, the CIA will successfully carry out the task of delivering US arms as assigned by policy and decision makers. Yet, providing US arms directly to the opposition arms in a way that would dramatically change the situation on ground would just be asking too much. The SMC, General Idriss, and the FSA fighters would still complain vehemently about not getting the right tools to win. (They are already saying small arms from the US will not be enough. Clearly these men, particularly their leaders, are not mature enough, and worldly enough, to understand that the US owes them absolutely nothing.

There is a real “Russian factor” in Syria of which Western capitals and Arab states, soon enough become most apparent. The Russian factor for now should outweigh concerns regarding the opposition. No matter the rationale behind it, the planning for any sort of military intervention could not be conducted without consideration that airstrikes or even a no-fly zone might result in harm to Russian advisers and other personnel. No clash with them should be an outcome of US efforts. The Syria conflict simply does not rise-to-a-level high enough as an issue over which any rational policymaker or decision maker in the US, EU, or Arab state to consider fighting with Russia. While the SNC and SMC may believe that their cause is the only one of real importance and urgency in the world, they need to know that perspective is wholly unrealistic. They would be greatly mistaken if they remotely thought that their situation in Syria warranted placing the security of the US, EU, or another Arab state at stake. For the US, maintaining positive relations with Russia within the parameters of its own national policies, and regarding their respective activities is very important.

As President Obama’s chemical weapons red-line has been crossed, the SNC and SMC will now receive US military aid for its forces. Some policy makers in the Obama administration apparently believe Syria, on the basis of being as a humanitarian crisis, is very worthy of some type of intervention. However, this is not 2011, but 2013, and things have changed in Syria. The FSA lacks the ability to achieve great success against the rejuvenated Syrian Armed Forces with its allies. It is unlikely that FSA capabilities could be ramped up to reach a size and strength great enough in any short period of time to confront the Syrian Armed Forces and allies as they are amassed. Doing anything too substantial with high-tech or heavy weapons shipments to the FSA at this point would be a foolhardy and reckless. Syria is not Libya, where Muammar al-Gaddafi stood alone against the opposition and Western airpower. In Syria, Assad has very powerful allies ready to support him with money and weapons, and fight alongside his forces. A clash with the Russia must be avoided. US Secretary of State John Kerry has sought to have the opposition meet with the Assad regime representatives in Geneva and come to some agreement on a transitional government. Now is the best and, perhaps, final chance for the SNC and SMC to organize representatives and go to Geneva to reach an agreement. The SNC and SMC can eventually lead Syria into the future. The failure to reach an agreement may result in a situation, created through military moves by the Assad regime, which the US, EU and Arab states, might not be in the best position to halt. Those states have dealt with Assad regime for years, and can easily tolerate it a few years more until some truly viable solution to it is found. However, for the SNC and SMC, such military action by Assad’s forces may be something their FSA fighters on the ground may be unable to cope with, and, perhaps, may be unable to live through.