Russia, Turkey and Others Agree on Syria Truce Monitoring: Moscow Asks US to Join Its Efforts, But How It Will Respond Is Unclear

2f94c64f00000578-3371675-image-a-23_1450865303684

War-torn Damascus (above). Following Russian Federation-led peace talks between representatives of Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian Opposition Movement on January 24, 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan, Moscow’s envoy, Alexander Lavrentyev, welcomed the US to take a more active role in efforts to resolve the conflict. The administration of US President Donald Trump will act regarding Syria when it chooses, in an appropriate, measured way. Moscow appears eager to know Trump’s plans for Syria. It seems to be engaging in a bit of guessing on it.

According to a January 24, 2017 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Russia, Turkey and Iran Agree on Syria Truce Monitoring,” officials from the Russian Federation, Turkey, and Iran met in Astana, Kazakhstan for two days with representatives of Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian Opposition Movement. On the second day, January 24, 2017, the officials agreed to jointly monitor a fragile ceasefire between the warring parties established on December 30, 2016. The latest deal was called a possible step toward a political solution to end the six-year war. The UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura was also present at the January talks. At a news conference in Astana, de Mistura said, “When we came here to Astana, our immediate priority was to ensure the consolidation of the ceasefire.”  He went on to say that in the past that previous cease-fires broke down because of a lack of monitoring and agreement on how to implement them. Under the new agreement, the monitors are to ensure full compliance with the truce and prevent provocations, according to a joint statement issued by three sponsors. The arrangements for monitoring the cease-fire and enforcing it would be decided at later meetings. The Assad regime and Syrian opposition both said they supported the plan. However, significantly different views were expressed by the Assad regime and opposition rebels over what those systems to monitor and enforce should be. The parties planned to reconvene a month later in Geneva for UN-sponsored talks.

Russia, which supports the Assad regime, and Turkey, which supports some rebel groups, explained last week they hoped the talks would begin to map the outlines of a political settlement to end the conflict. As the talks progressed, however, both sides tempered expectations, saying the aim in Astana was to buttress the fragile truce as a foundation for more political talks later. The administration of former US President Barack Obama was a primary supporter of Syrian Opposition Movement and the effort by its armed rebels to shape events on the ground to force Assad regime to talks to discuss the transition to a new government. That effort has largely been unsuccessful. The new administration of US President Donald Trump did not push for a role in what were albeit at the Russian-led talks. Instead, the Trump administration chose not to send a delegation, and the US was represented by the US ambassador to Kazakhstan. Moscow’s envoy to the talks, Alexander Lavrentyev, told reporters that Russia would welcome the US taking a more active role in attempts to resolve the conflict. This was ostensibly an invitation for the Trump administration to fully participate in what Russia hopes will be on-going talks. Russia’s invitation “to take a more active role” on Syria appears to reveal a change of heart in the Kremlin on the US with the advent of the Trump administration. Perhaps it may even serve as evidence that at least on some foreign policy issues, Putin is not locked into a single intent, immutable. By the end of the Obama administration, the US-Russia relationship stood in ruins. So enervated was former US Secretary of State John Kerry, and other officials, with the search for common ground with Russia on Syria that the effort was essentially suspended.

While the invitation from Lavrentyev is laudable and was likely appreciated by the Trump administration, there is far more involved in repairing the broken relationship between the US and Russia than opening the door with an invitation to participate in Russian-led Syria talks. There is also far more to Syria than the talks. US administrations do not formulate their policies and action based on invitations or exchanges of short public statements but through the work of federal employees engaged in the daily task of analyzing situations, the development of policies and policy approaches, and the formal implementation of those policies through diplomacy, and when appropriate, the utilization of other tools of national power. That process has been somewhat disrupted by the resignation of the entire senior level of management officials at the US Department of State during the last week of January 2017. Reportedly, it was part of a spate of retirements by senior Foreign Service officers.  There was boldness going forward with Syria peace talks without the US and working with Turkey and others instead to secure a sustainable peace. However, it seems Russia has found that the dynamics of bringing the warring parties in Syria together for anything is daunting. What Russia may really be doing is inviting the Trump administration to further tie the US to the morass in Syria beyond the anti-ISIS fight. That would be a step of significant consequence, requiring considerable review. There has been some mumbling in the US news media and in social networks about an unverified draft executive order that indicates Trump plans to use the US military, in tandem with the State Department, to establish and protect refugee camps in Syria and neighboring countries. Syria was genuinely broached in a telephone conversation on January 28, 2017 between Trump and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.  According to the Kremlin, the most tangible outcome of the phone call was an understanding that jointly fighting international terrorism was a priority and that the two countries should cooperate in Syria. While admitting that Syria was discussed, the White House characterized the call more casually as “a congratulatory call” initiated by Putin. The Trump administration will act regarding Syria, but it will do so when it chooses, in an appropriate, measured way. A policy with varied approaches to the many aspects of the Syria issue will eventually be articulated. However, most intriguing has been Russia’s interest in connecting with Trump on Syria rather than any other faced by both countries. That is the focus of the discussion here.

29thu1web-superjumbo

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above). It should have behooved Putin to consider how significant cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups during the administration of US President Barack Obama then might set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries in the next administration, especially regarding the peace talks and postwar reconstruction in Syria. Now cooperation is somewhat uncertain.

Russia in Syria

On September 15, 2015, at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe Tajikistan, Putin explained Russia’s military support and intervention in Syria.   He stated, “We support the government of Syria in its opposition to terrorist aggression. We have provided and will provide necessary military and technical support and call on other nations to join us.” Putin explained the exodus of refugees toward Europe and the crisis in Syria was a result of the support foreign powers provided the Syrian Opposition rebels. He said, “I would like to note that people are fleeing Syria because of the military actions that were largely imposed externally by deliveries of weapons and other special equipment. People are fleeing to escape the atrocities committed by terrorists.” Putin went on to state, “[The refugees] are fleeing from radicals, above all. And if Russia had not supported Syria, the situation in this country would have been worse than in Libya, and the stream of refugees would have been even greater.” Encouraged by advisers, Putin sensed not only a chance for Russia to shore up one of its remaining allies in the Middle East, but the chance to reassert Russia’s role as a global power. He was able to demonstrate that Russia could succeed where the Obama administration had floundered.

Since September 2015, Russia, along with its allies, have destroyed ISIS units, material, command, control, communication and intelligence and training facilities and has returned a considerable amount of Syrian territory back into the hands of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. True, there are many foreign military forces operating in Syria, but the effort of Russia and its allies is a very visible, full-scale, multidimensional military operation. Russia has managed to shape events on the ground in Syria in order to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad. Russia also seeks to defeat ISIS by annihilating its military formations in the field, eliminating its leadership, and eviscerating its so-called Islamic Caliphate to the extent that the organization will never be able to resurrect itself. In the process, the fighting has claimed some of the Russian Federation Armed Forces’ most capable soldiers. Most recently, Russian Federation Army Colonel Ruslan Galitsky was killed in Aleppo, Syria. Putin personally announced that Galitsky had suffered fatal wounds when a Russian military field hospital in Aleppo’s al-Furqan neighborhood was struck by artillery fire on December 2, 2016. According to the Russian state-owned RIA Novosti news agency, Galitsky was acting as a military adviser to the Syrian Arab Army during its rapid three-week advance through about 75 percent of East Aleppo. It was reported that Galitsky was due to be promoted to the rank of major-general on December 12, 2016.

1481133826082-cached

Since September 2015, Russia, along with its allies, have destroyed ISIS units, materiél, command, control, communication and intelligence and training facilities and has returned a considerable amount territory back into the hands of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. In the process, the fighting has claimed some of the Russian Federation Armed Forces’ most capable soldiers. Counted among those lost is Russian Federation Army Colonel Ruslan Galitsky (above).

A Russian Invitation for Cooperation on Syria: A Lot to Consider

Praeterita mutare non possumus, sed futura providere debemos. (We cannot change the past, but we anticipate the future.) Certainly, Moscow would be very pleased if its interactions with the Trump administration could begin at a point where it had any positive, constructive interactions the administration of former US President Barack Obama. That would require ignoring the overall tenor of the relationship it has had with Washington on Syria and many other urgent and important issues. The Obama administration was unsupportive of Russia’s intervention from the get-go. On September 30, 2015, then US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter forecasted about Moscow’s military involvement in Syria, “The Russian approach here is doomed to fail.” Obama stated on October 2, 2015: “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” Almost immediately after Russia began military operations in Syria in September 2015, Obama administration officials were already regularly reproaching Russia over its repeated airstrikes upon “moderate” anti-Assad groups while ostensibly seeking to attack ISIS. Obama’s disappointment could be discerned in his statements. Concerning Syria, on August 6, 2016, Obama went as far as to say about Putin and Russia: “I’m not confident that we can trust the Russians or Vladimir Putin.” He continued: “Whenever you are trying to broker any kind of deal with an individual like that or a country like that, you have got to go in there with some skepticism.”

In diplomacy, words and behavior matter absolutely, and there must be a certain amiability and gentleness in communications and interactions in order to create the environment for the development of mutual respect and understanding. It seems very uncharacteristic of Moscow in the midst of what Russian officials touted as a foreign policy success to invite the Trump administration to become more engaged with it on Syria. Still, even knowing it would mean sharing the limelight with the US, Russia appeared to have the desire to include the US in the process. To make perfunctory or platitudinous gesture for the US to become more engaged in Syria without any real desire for such cooperation could have potentially created a negative situation. The Russia could have convince the US to work with it, only to discover that the approaches of the two countries were not compatible. Far worse than both of those possibility would be the discovery that the invitation was a hoax. Certainly, Moscow had to expect that although Lavrentyev spoke with such comfortable words, it could not be acted upon immediately. Trump administration undoubtedly has it own thoughts and plans for Syria, but at the same time, it would very likely want to discern the full meaning of Russia’s “suggestion.” The decision was based on some rationale.

There is the possibility that Moscow’s invitation for the US join the Syria talks was a trial balloon floated off with the hope that if the Trump Administration might be interested in investing itself in Syria as part of its policy planning on the Middle East, counter terrorism, and possibly its Russia policy. Moscow seems very open to engagement. On counterterrorism, specifically, perhaps it would like to secure a pledge from the Trump administration that it would work directly with Russia to destroy Islamic militant groups in Syria. Russia has been able to put significant pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups using its special operations forces–Spetsnaz–and airpower.

c2swidqwgaadl0q

A Russian Federation Tupolev Tu-22M3 bomber (above). Moscow appears very open to engagement with the Trump administration on counter terrorism. It seems Moscow would like to secure a pledge from the Trump administration that it would work directly with Russia to destroy Islamic militant groups in Syria. The Russian Federation Armed Forces have already been able to put significant pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups using its special operations forces and airpower.

Leap of Faith?: No Firm Basis for Moscow’s Hopes on Trump and Syria

On one occasion, Putin has mentioned the 1973 comedy, science-fiction film from the Soviet Union, “Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Profession.” Putin would quote one of the film’s characters as saying to another: “How am I supposed to understand what you’re saying if you don’t say anything?” This really is the case with Moscow and Trump administration. To an extent, the January 28, 2017 telephone conversation between Trump and Putin confirmed essence of Lavrentyev’s statement in Astana. Yet, there were no details discussed that would indicate cooperation on Russia’s terms.  More specifically, the statement generated by the White House after the conversation noted that “The positive call was a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair.”  It stated further simply, “Both President Trump and President Putin are hopeful after today’s call the two sides can move quickly to tackle terrorism and other important issues of mutual concern.”

There has been no formal articulation of a Syria policy and immediate approaches for its implementation by the Trump White House or State Department. That makes it difficult to see what could have impelled Russia to suggest greater US involvement in Syria. Lacking any formal statements from the Trump administration on Syria to analyze, it could very well be that some in the Kremlin have turned to US news media interpretations of political events and decisions of the Trump Administration. For example, on January 26, 2017, the Guardian reported: “Trump had earlier also appeared to fall into line with Russia’s approach towards Syria, which had been to bomb the anti-Assad opposition into submission, before turning its attention towards a mutual foe, ISIS.” As for taking an unconventional, high profile approach to diplomacy, it may have been an effort to match the idea popularly promoted in the US media that it is the Trump administration’s preferred foreign policy tack. When one is less certain about the objective truth, the possibility that one might be drawn elsewhere for answers increases.

In addition to the fact that no formal policy documents exist that could have caused Moscow to believe the Trump administration’s policy on Syria, once articulated, would be compatible with its own. No publicized contact has taken place between Trump administration and the Kremlin, particularly one that would even approximate a complex conversation on bilateral relations. As mentioned, there was the late-January 28, 2017 Trump-Putin telephone call. However, no other conversations during the campaign or in the period before Trump’s inauguration could have reasonably caused Moscow to be certain of what his administration’s policy approaches would be on Syria. Additionally, decisions that might be made by the Trump administration on Syria at this point would be made with every fact, every judgment, the US government has available. Eventually, a formal policy on Syria will be presented.  Verba volant, scripta manent. (Spoken words fly away, written words remain.)

Diplomacy via Public Statements: Russia’s Effort to Bypass the US Policymaking Process

It is unclear how Moscow thought Lavrentyev’s invitation would be processed within the US foreign policy apparatus. Most recently, there have been significant changes in the US Department of State. According to the Washington Post, on January 25, 2017, Patrick Kennedy, Undersecretary for Management, Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond, and the Director of the Office of Foreign Missions, Ambassador Gentry Smith resigned from their posts. In addition, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Gregory Starr retired January 20, 2017, and the director of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, Lydia Muniz, departed the same day. While the Trump might have eventually replaced these officials, career Foreign Service officers as them are crucial to the State Department’s many functions, particularly the implementation of an administration’s agenda.

Officials in the Kremlin or the Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs should not hope to impact US foreign policy by just making statements and expecting a reaction. Foreign policy is still formulated at the White House and US Department of State as a result of a thorough examination of facts by policy analysts.In the current environment, the analytical process on Russia must be akin to a crucible in which social media rumors, falsehoods, and fake news must be burned off. Those facts are analyzed, with the concepts and intent of senior department officials and those of national leaders firmly in mind. Then others, enlightened with truths, based on real facts presented by the analysts, formulate policy options. US Department of State uses diplomacy to implement policies. Employees in other departments whose work concerns US external relations engage in a similar processes utilizing their particular tools of national power.  For example, in the US Department of Defense, employees formulate policies entailing the possible use of the military power. It is a daily enterprise in which thousands of federal employees are engaged. In verbis etiam tenuis cautusque serendis dixeris egregie, notum si callida verbum reddiderit iunctura novum. (When putting words together it is good to do it with nicety and caution, your elegance and talent will be evident if by putting ordinary words together you create a new voice.)

U.S. President Donald Trump walks through the Colonnade to the Oval Office after returning to the White House in Washington.

When Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address, he was not presenting a policy plan for any region. Rather, he presented “America First” as a concept, a guiding principle, indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. An explanation of the concept was posted on the White House website on January 20, 2017 as the “America First Foreign Policy.”

A US-Russia Relationship on Syria:Thinking It Through in Moscow

Faced with the predicament of having no formal articulation of a Syria policy and immediate approaches for its implementation by the Trump White House or State Department from which it could work, Moscow’s decision to authorize Lavrentyev’s  invitation may have been based on assessments developed from the abstract by Russian foreign policy analysts of the Trump administration’s most likely Syria policy or greater Middle East policy. If anything, from what Trump has stated, analysts admittedly might have gleaned and constructed his likely key foreign and national security policy concepts on which his decisions might be based. True, when Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address, he was not presenting a policy plan for any region. Rather, he presented, “America First” as a concept, a guiding principle indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. An explanation of the concept was posted on the White House website on January 20, 2017 as the “America First Foreign Policy.” It reads in part: “Peace through strength will be at the center of that foreign policy. This principle will make possible a stable, more peaceful world with less conflict and more common ground.” It further states: “Defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups will be our highest priority. To defeat and destroy these groups, we will pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary. In addition, the Trump Administration will work with international partners to cut off funding for terrorist groups, to expand intelligence sharing, and to engage in cyberwarfare to disrupt and disable propaganda and recruiting.”

It could very well be that policy analysts in Moscow, as much as policy analysts in other national capitals, may have used their analysis of the “America First Foreign Policy” to base conclusions on prospective Trump administration policies. Judgments made would need to have been deemed satisfactory enough to take action on. Given the statement’s mention of counterterrorism and the determination to pursue the issue vigorously, it would naturally follow that the judgments on which Russian analysts would have been most confident would concern counterterrorism and how it might relate to Syria. Absent this possibility, what impelled Russia to suggest greater US involvement in Syria truly becomes a mystery.

Ut desint vires tamen est laudanda voluntas. (Even if it is beyond one’s power, the will [to try] is still worthy of praise.) Surely, Moscow would prefer that Western foreign policy analysts saved their ministrations for officials  of their own countries. Nevertheless, how Moscow may have perceived relations with the Trump administration on Syria before authorizing Lavrentyev’s invitation, what it perceived the US footprint in Syria would be following a renewed investment there, and how the US role might impact Russia, as well as its current partners on Syria is worth considering. If Russia’s decision on cooperating with the US on Syria was based on conclusions reached by Russian analyst as postulated here, it would be interesting to consider gaps that likely existed in their understanding of Trump’s concepts and prospective decisions on US foreign policy. The list of issues which Russian analysts would need to consider and for which they would need the right answers would be lengthy. Some of the important considerations for Moscow would likely have been: 1) bridging the diplomacy gap on Syria; 2) connecting on counterterrorism and safe zone; 3) establishing an understanding on Assad; 4) handling the Syrian rebels; 5) managing the peace talks; 6) getting the US to accept Iran’s role in Syria; 7) discerning US-Turkey cooperation; and, 8) postwar peace-enforcement and reconstruction.

1) Bridging the diplomacy gap on Syria

One could postulate that Russia’s interest in including the US in its Syria peace talks now is a display of newly found respect for the US Presidency, a very congenial welcome to the new administration with hope it would be perceived a sign of Moscow’s desire for improved relations, or an attempted appeal to the pride and ego of new US officials. While on the outside, Trump may appear to some as audacious, unpredictable, aggressive, on the inside Trump is thoughtful, disciplined, under control, and tough. The Kremlin might keep in mind is that much as Putin, Trump will hardly interested in diffusing tension by amiability, a hug or a slap on the back, an affected joviality to initiate dialogue. Trying to diffuse tension with Trump in this way is to play the minstrel. It will signal insecurity.

Russia has not provided a useful articulation of its hopes for relations with the Trump administration which would be helpful to the White House on some policy planning. It would also be helpful if Moscow articulated a reasonable cause for Russia’s decision to break contact with the Obama administration on Syria, or exclude the US in its talks in Astana. Anger is not an acceptable rationale but very often the basis for poor decisions. Moscow should realize that the Trump administration indeed represents a new beginning. It will seek better ties with other countries and better deals on anything negotiated by the Obama administration. Still, that does not necessarily mean everything that was Obama’s must be deracinated. Trump is very patriotic, and while he may not have agreed with Obama’s policies and approaches, he would certainly want other governments to display respect for a sitting US president. The reality is Russian behavior toward Obama Presidency at some level may factor into his perceptions of Russia.

It is unclear whether there are any other steps other than Lavrentyev’s invitation, planned to help bridge diplomatic gap between the US and Russia on Syria. Having taken the uncongenial and provocative step of excluding the US from its peace talks in Astana, and terminating discussions on Syria with the US, Russia’s attempt to revive what has been broken is being attempted with almost no diplomatic foundation to build upon. Former US Secretary of State John Kerry very likely explained to his counterpart Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Putin, himself, that reaching an agreement during the Obama administration on Syria and coordinating effectively under that agreement and others that might have been reached, would increase the possibility that US-Russian coordination at that level would be preserved by the next US administration. It would have been a simple statement of truth as much as an effort at fence mending. It should have behooved Putin to consider how significant cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups then might set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries in the next administration, especially on a postwar reconstruction and peace-enforcement mission in Syria.

A feasible point on which Russia might build new diplomatic relations on Syria would be US-Russian military coordination cooperation on Syria to ensure that the two countries’ air forces operate safely and that the risk of accidental confrontation or collision is minimized. Those talks were set up as a result of a proposal proffered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to share intelligence with Russia and coordinate airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. Russia might want to provide a positive assessment of the status of US-Russia air coordination on Syria.

1049430275

A US B-52H bomber (above) Even without a formal articulation of its foreign and national security policies, the Trump administration’s intentions regarding counterterrorism have been explicit. Trump is ready to respond to terrorists groups with varied means to include stealthy, covert special operations raid executed with surgical precision to airstrikes of unimaginable destructive power.

2) Connecting on counterrorism and safe zones

Given that diplomatic efforts between the US and Russia on Syria near the Obama administration’s terminus were discontinuous, it is difficult to see how Moscow would have any confidence that the Trump administration would be interested in diplomatic efforts on Syria that would bridge the gap. Prospective diplomatic efforts might include talks on the US role in the Russian-led Syria peace talks, a new US-Russia partnership in Middle East, or counterterrorism.  The draft executive order circulating on social media in January 2017 was first obtained and published by the Huffington Post, Trump envisioned establishing “safe zones” both inside Syria and in neighboring countries that will be used to “protect vulnerable Syrian populations” while they “await firm settlement” either elsewhere in Syria or in other countries. The document alludes to Trump’s controversial calls to prevent people fleeing the war-torn country from entering the US.  It further explained that  according to a draft executive order along with other steps with the goal of preventing future terrorist attacks in the US. Trump indicates he wants to see a plan by late April. The draft executive order was unverified.  Some believe Trump will likely withdraw the matter due to tough logistical and political challenges associated with it.

Even without a formal articulation of its foreign and national security policies, the Trump administration’s intentions with regard to counterterrorism may have been explicit enough. He appears ready to respond to terrorists groups with varied means to include stealthy, covert special operations raid executed with surgical precision to airstrikes of unimaginable destructive power.  As the capital of ISIS’ now dwindling Islamic Caliphate is located in Syria, it could be postulated that the country should hold some relevance regarding the administration’s foreign policy.  It could seen as  prospective rationale for Trump administration to invest time and effort on the political situation in Syria. Still, it would be difficult to discern solely from that angle what the administration’s interest and approaches to other aspects of the Syria issue might be.

It is uncertain whether Russia could establish a purely anti-ISIS linkage with the US on Syria or whether such a tie would be desirable. While the Trump-Putin telephone call albeit occurred after Lavrentyev made his statement,Moscow’s desire to make counterterrorism the foundation for establishing US-Russian relationship focus was reflected by the conversation. The aspect of the call that the Kremlin primarily focused on was counterterrorism. The Kremlin noted, “The presidents spoke in favor of setting up genuine coordination between Russian and American actions with the aim of destroying Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria.”

3) Handling the Syrian Opposition Rebels

It is uncertain how the Trump administration will respond to Syrian Opposition Movement rebels on the ground. The Obama administration in 2012 to provide the Syrian Opposition Movement with its support in the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by Free Syrian Army advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. However, the US effort in Syria was designed and recognized by many as work on the margins. For nearly five years, the rebels were, for the most part, a disappointment as a military force. Indeed, after the Obama administration took on what proved to be the thankless task of supporting the Syrian Opposition rebels on the ground, complaints were frequently heard from senior commanders of the Supreme Military Council, the opposition’s military wing and commanders of their forces in the field, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as well. Their grievances belie the fact that the Syrian opposition military leaders, after four years of war, have failed to unify the many groups in the Free Syrian Army into a cohesive fighting force and have been unable, without foreign assistance, to enhance their fighters capabilities. Only with US direction were FSA units and People’s Protection Units (YPG) of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party in the northeast Syria able to unite as the Syrian Democratic Forces. The rebels’ leaders had been remiss in devising their own plans for the effective use of their forces against ISIS and the Syrian Arab Armed Forces. From the beginning of their movement, Syrian opposition leaders should have been mature enough, and worldly wise enough, to understand that neither US nor any other country owed them anything. The Syrian Opposition’s Supreme Military Council, and senior FSA commanders should have expected more from themselves before demanding so much of others. The chance that Syrian Opposition Movement rebels on the ground in Syria and its political leaders would gain and retain the support of the Trump administration will be slim if their predilection toward being demanding and difficult to coordinate politically persists.

There are presently 500 US Special Operations troops in Syria training, equipping, and assisting Syrian Opposition rebels. Their help has allowed the rebels achieve some big things. The rebels march toward Raqqa is an example of that. Through the assistance of US Special Operations advisers, the rebels have been able to coordinate their movements with planners of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition air campaign. However, there is still no evidence that the rebels possess any capability to shape the overall struggle in a way now that would put real pressure on Assad. For many rebels scattered around Syria, everyday is fight for survival as they hope for a miracle.

ISIS and other Islamic militant groups linked to Al-Qaeda, such as the former Jabhat al-Nusra and its reported offshoot Khorasan, have managed find advantage in the Syrian opposition’s failings throughout the war.  By attacking mainstream FSA units that were trying to defeat Assad’s troops and allies, the Islamic militants have succeeded in making the Syrian opposition’s situation far worse. On top of the damage caused by their attacks on the FSA, Islamic militant groups continue to commit countless atrocities against the Syrian people. The Islamic militant groups were never oriented toward Syria’s transition to a democratic form of government. ISIS has included territory they hold in Syria as part of a massive Islamic State, an Islamic Caliphate, crossing into Iraq that is solely under their control, ruled under Sharia law. A syncretistic merger of mainstream opposition and Islamic militant ideas on governance was never going to occur. Meanwhile, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamic militant groups became stronger almost daily. Their strength has long since passed the point at which mainstream Syrian Opposition forces could independently contend with them.

635971269655098451-150422-F-QX786-836

US Special Operations troops in Syria (above). With the help of 500 US Special Operations troops who were sent into Syria to train, equip, and assist them, the Syrian Opposition rebels have managed to achieve some things. Their march toward Raqqa is an example of that. However, there is still no evidence of a capability to shape the conflict in a way now that would put real pressure on Assad. For many Syrian Opposition rebels, everyday is fight for survival as they hope for a miracle.

An authentic Russian assessment of the Syrian opposition rebels at this point could only be that they will not be able to shape the military situation on ground in a way to force Assad to talks for arranging his removal from office and setting up a transitional government. The rebels have lost many fighters, and a significant portion of their territorial gain. They clearly have not influenced Assad’s thinking or decision-making. From a Russian military perspective, there is not too much for the Trump administration to go into Syria to support. Russia has been effective at halting rebels efforts on the ground. In reality, the US has been the only obstacle to ensuring the rebels’ destruction by Russian Federation and Syrian Arab air power. Some analysts believe the Battle of Aleppo truly signaled the end for rebels. Russia apparently plans to remain in Syria at relatively high levels and continue to provide military assistance to Assad’s forces. Without any US assistance, there is no chance whatsoever that the rebels could keep fighting at all. Given that, the Moscow may find it difficult to believe that Trump administration would pump more time, blood, and money into the rebel effort.

4) Managing the Peace Talks

As there is no path for the Syrian Opposition Movement to secure a role in the Damascus government, Moscow may doubt that the Trump administration would be willing to negotiate for them at the Syrian peace talks. Pressing for the demand of the Obama administration that a transition government be created in Damascus and that Assad commit to stepping down would be unreasonable. Likewise, it might be considered unnecessary for the Trump administration to seek a settlement on territory. The Syrian Opposition Movement was a political movement not territorial one, in which an autonomous state is sought. The movement of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party, however, is a struggle for autonomy. To that extent, it may be an issue which the Trump administration could get behind.

On the other hand, despite glowing reports on what had been achieved in Astana, Moscow discovered in December 2016 and January 2017 that managing peace talks with the warring parties was not easy. There was difficulty getting the Syrian Opposition to agree to anyrhing. This was repeatedly the case when the Obama administration was involved. Moreover, during previous talks, foreign diplomats were required to devote a significant amount of time acting as mediators to hold the Syrian Opposition’s diverse groups together. While the opposition delegation was formed mostly of rebel commanders rather than political leaders, it was still quick to reject proposal for direct talks with the Assad regime because of its continued bombardment of opposition-held areas. Russia drummed up political support for the talks in Astana, which appeared aimed at leveraging its rejuvenated ties with Turkey and to simply give Moscow a greater voice in efforts to broker a settlement. However, Russian officials have lowered expectations that a major breakthrough would result from its efforts. Making things worse, during the talks, fierce infighting between rebel groups erupted in Syria, pitting at least one faction that supported the talks against another that was excluded. The rebels went into the talks at their weakest point so far in the war and this new eruption of violence threatened to fracture the opposition even further. Moscow may very well sense that it needs the assistance of the US to manage the talks.

5) Establishing an Understanding on Assad

Before its next contact with the Trump administration, Moscow will undoubtedly consider what cooperative role the US could play that would allow for the full exploitation of its capabilities in the anti-ISIS effort. However, if Moscow wants to cooperate with the administration on Syria, it must create an environment that will facilitate such cooperation. There is the likelihood that Trump administration will not accept Assad. For the moment, the transition of Assad regime to new politically inclusive government is the standing US policy. If the Trump administration by chance decided to cooperate with Russia on Syria at the moment, it would signal its acceptance of Assad’s presidency as it is Russia’s policy to fully support it. To believe that might happen is to deny reality. Russia must decide how it will negotiate on Assad before it discusses anything about Syria with the Trump administration.

If the Trump administration has no interest in working with Assad, it could hardly be expected that the administration would provide US financial assistance for Syria’s reconstruction, helping to rebuild his regime. Russia needs to assess whether there any strong motivation might exist for the Trump administration to be involved. At best, the administration would only give reconstruction consideration if it was presented with some opportunity, a role of clear benefit to the US. Alternatively, Moscow could make itself completely open to responding to the Trump administration’s wishes on Syria. Absent either, there would hardly be any point to pursuing the matter. Russian analysts should have assessed that Assad’s future would need to be an important factor in the Kremlin’s calculus on reconstruction.

bn-rt656_syrtal_p_20170124092506

Despite glowing reports on what had been achieved in Astana, Moscow actually found that managing the peace talks was not easy. It faced particular difficulty keeping the Syrian Opposition together. It has repeatedly been the case during Syrian peace talks that foreign diplomats were required to devote much time acting as mediators to hold the Syrian Opposition’s diverse groups together. Moscow may very well sense that it needs the assistance of the US to manage the talks. 

6) Getting the US to Accept Iran’s Role in Syria

Russian analysts should have assessed that the Trump administration may not want to work in conjunction with Iran on Syria. The Trump administration has explicitly indicated that it is an avid supporter of Israel, whose leaders have referred to Iran as an existential threat. Further, during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, Trump expressed the desire to alter or scrap the Iran nuclear deal. His administration’s thinking and approach to the nuclear deal may impact its desire to participate in the Syria peace talks while Iran was present. Russia would also need to establish what Iran’s reaction would be to possible US involvement in the talks. Reportedly, Iran has made huge sacrifices in blood and money in Syria, and is still doing so. Its leaders will most likely feel that their country deserves standing greater, but certainly no less than the US on any issues concerning Syria. It is unclear whether the Russians would want to do anything to negatively affect the strong ties it has developed with Iran in order to establish cooperation with the US.

There are other matters that might greatly concern the Trump administration. At a UN meeting in Vienna on November 14, 2015, Kerry is said to have proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora” participate in the vote. He was betting that if Syrians around the world can participate in the vote, Assad will not be able to win, his regime likely has a limited degree of influence within Syria and the Syrian diaspora worldwide, including among refugees in massive camps in Jordan and Turkey or on their own elsewhere. As December 30, 2015 greatcharlie post explained, Russia and Iran would hardly allow the situation to slip from their hands so easily. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), IRGC-Quds Force, the Iranian Army, and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security would do much to influence the outcome on the battlefield but also will likely do much to help the Assad regime influence the result of elections despite UN monitors, by helping to “create support” for Assad and “coping” with regime opponents. Reportedly, the Assad regime and the Iranians have engaged in a bit of ethnic cleansing. For example, Sunnis in West Damascus were forced to resettle in Kefraya and Fua. Iraqi and Lebanese Shias among those who replace them. Shia residents in Kefraya and Fua have been moved to formerly Sunni areas near Damascus. The Trump administration will likely point to this matter and will unlikely approve of Iran’s actions.  Moscow will need to develop responses to Trump administration questions about that.

7) Discerning US-Turkey Cooperation

Russia analysts would likely assess for Moscow that if the US enters the fray on Syria, Turkey would be forced to establish a balance between the relations with Russia and the US. While Turkey has a new linkage with Russia on Syria, it has a strong linkage with the US, its long-time NATO ally, on Syria as a result of an agreement with the Obama administration to take on the role of supporting US-backed Syrian Opposition rebels. Moreover, how Turkey intended to proceed regarding its support of those US-backed rebels’ campaign is unknown. This issue will take on even greater importance if the Trump administration decided to reduce or halt financial support to Ankara that may have assisted Turkish military forces and intelligence services working with Syrian Opposition rebels.

Safe zones have been a core demand of the Syrian opposition and were central to Turkey’s Syria policy for much of the past five years. However, Ankara is apparently lukewarm about idea of new safe zones, believing that under its auspices, a sufficient safe zone has already created. Indeed, Turkey has set up its own zone of influence, a de facto safe zone, between the Kurdish enclaves of Jarablus and Irfin, which is aimed primarily at keeping Syrian Kurds from forming a presence along the entire length of its border with Syria, but is also being used as a refuge by some fleeing civilians. Russian analysts may have already assessed that if the US receives significant push back from Turkey on creating new safe zones in Syria, it may temper the Trump administration’s interest in investing the US further in the Syria situation. Countries as Turkey and Jordan would be critical to any plan to create safe zones in country because they would need a steady line of support in order to be sustained.

dd955808f1c6f0b9a7f71afb862805af297be7e5

Aleppo (above). US cooperation on reconstruction would be most desirable after any conflict.There would hardly be any motivation for the Trump administration to provide US financial assistance for reconstruction of Syria for Assad. At best, Trump would only give reconstruction consideration if there was a clear benefit to the US. Unless Russia would be open to responding to US wishes on Syria, it is hard see what would draw the US to the enterprise.

8) Postwar Peace-Enforcement and Reconstruction

Russian analysts may have assessed that convincing US to cooperate on the Syria peace talks could create a possible path for for US participation at an important level in the country’s postwar peace-enforcement mission and possibly reconstruction.  It is a monumental task that lies ahead. Leaving Syria without at least initiating some complex comprehensive plan for reconstruction and peace-enforcement would be a mistake. That would create ideal conditions for the rejuvenation of ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or the establishment of another Islamic militant group to fill the vacuum of power around the country. That was what occurred in Iraq after US forces departed, the problem in Libya with the removal of the regime of Muammar El-Ghaddafi, and it is a growing problem in Afghanistan.

US cooperation on reconstruction would be most desirable after any conflict. Surely, Russian Federation EMERCOM, developed and led by the current Russian Federation Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu for many years, would have an significant impact on that effort. However, without the financial wherewithal and expertise of the US, Russia’s investment in Syria might amount to nothing in the end. In the international reconstruction effort launched in Bosnia in 1995 under the Dayton Peace Agreement and the creation of the multinational peace-enforcement force in support of the agreement’s implementation, I-FOR (Implementation Force). The US and Russia cooperated as members of that force and the follow-on force, S-FOR (Stabilization Force). US participation in the peace-enforcement and reconstruction effort may also do much to encourage participation from those Arab countries and Western countries as well. Russia, itself, has sought stronger ties with Arab countries, bolstering economic ties with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait and diplomatic overtures with Algeria, Iraq, and Egypt. Russia’s hope was that courting those countries would make them more receptive to its’ calls to assist in finding a political solution for Syria. It was also hoped those countries would eventually be responsive to a campaign by Russia to gain financial support for Syria’s reconstruction. Still, there is sense of stability that may come from US participation in the Syria effort. Knowing the US and Russia were cooperating on the ground might create a sense of security among the other countries.

632914834-4630

The Trump administration, in its nascent days, has set out to accomplish many things, but approaches matters in a way a bit different from previous administrations. Its intent is not to reject or break the US policymaking process, but the change still worries many. Government professionals will soon be put to work implementing numerous administration policies. Once cabinet members and senior executives of the various departments are seated, policy statements on Syria and other issues will be produced.

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Polonius is a Danish Lord and chief counselor to the king. In Act I Scene iii, his son Laertes is leaving home for France. While sending his son off, Polonius offers him advice on how to behave with integrity and practicality overseas. At the end of a long list of guidelines, Polonius tells Laertes: “This above all: to thine ownself be true. And it must follow, as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Taking an unconventional approach can be called creative, but when it leads to successful outcomes, it must be considered effective. The Trump administration, in its nascent days, has set out to accomplish many things and it is doing them in a way different from that of previous administrations. Change can be disturbing. On foreign policy, it is not the intent of the Trump administration to reject or break the policymaking process. Inevitably, professionals serving in government departments will be put to work implementing numerous administration policies. Trump is aware of the very large foreign affairs and national security apparatus made available to a US president, and knows it is very capable. As its cabinet members and senior executives of the various departments are seated, the Trump administration will begin to produce policy statements not only on Syria, but many other issues as well. Moscow’s invitation for the Trump administration to join the Syria effort seems to indicate that Russia would prefer, and if possible encourage, the White House to circumvent the normal policymaking process. Taking approach will put Moscow on nothing but a bad road. Indeed, accomplishing anything that way will be impossible. Despite what may become a persistent voice from overseas, the administration will formulate its policies and advance them at its own pace.

Russia’s Lavrov Says Fighting “Terrorism” Should Unite Syrian Opposition, Damascus; But Animus and Past Blunders of Powers Propel the Three-Way War!

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.

ISIS Emerges

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.

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

At greatcharlie.com, 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.

Diplomacy

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.

Assessment

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.

13920223000284_PhotoA

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.

US Backs Off Syria Strike for More Talk, and Prolonged “Peaceful Coexistence” with Rogue Islamic Militants

As reported in a September 15, 2013, Wall Street Journal article entitled “US Backs Off Syria Strike for More Talk,” the Obama administration took two steps back from its push for a prompt attack on Syria, allowing several weeks more for diplomacy on eliminating Syrian chemical weapons.  The reversals on September 13th came after a week that began with US President Barack Obama insisting that the US Congress urgently approve military action.  The Obama administration turned to a Russian diplomatic proposal that was actually suggested offhandedly by US Secretary of State John Kerry while answering a journalist’s question on the possibility of military action being halted.  Under the proposal, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ability to execute chemical attacks would be degraded over a period of time, without strikes.  Yet, despite this diplomatic activity, the US made it clear, according to the Wall Street Journal, that military strikes, using an international coalition, and not the UN, were still very possible and any effort to stall the chemical weapons elimination process would not be acceptable.  US officials also explained that there was also hope that through this diplomatic process, Kerry, the masterful statesman, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, his sparring partner, would be able to rekindle efforts to hold an international peace conference on Syria, bringing together the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition in Geneva in an effort to establish a transitional government in Damascus.  .

However, despite the importance of these recent events, there is a crucial matter, not referenced in talks between Kerry and Lavrov: the Islamic militant presence in Syria.  Members of the US Congress gave great consideration to the issue during their deliberations on US military action in Syria.  Islamic militant factions, laden with foreign fighters, truly represent a threat to security and stability in Syria and internationally.  Anxious to garner as much support as possible from his former Congressional colleagues for immediate military strikes, when asked about the strength of the Islamic militant presence in the Syrian opposition forces, Kerry brushed off the issue of their presence in Syria as exaggerated.  Yet, even under Kerry’s assessments of the Islamic militant presence, it is clear that their numbers are significant, and they continue to grow exponentially daily.  Unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the Syrian opposition, it is inconceivable that the Islamic militants’ would cease their struggle, particularly that of the foreign fighters, under any peace agreement with the Assad regime allowing for a transitional government.  The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the Syrian opposition leadership’s concepts and intent.  While mainstream Free Syrian Army are directed at creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, Islamic militant factions seek to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory, under Sharia law.  Clashes between moderate, secular opposition groups and the Islamic militant factions have become commonplace.  Atrocities are as likely to be committed against other opposition fighters and innocent Syrian civilians by Islamic militants, as Syrian military personnel or regime supporters.  Unless an appropriate response is formulated and readied for implementation now or in the aftermath of the signing of a peace agreement, negotiators from the US and Russia will saddle Syria for the moment, or under a potential transitional government, with the scourge of the rogue Islamic militants.  Unchecked, the Islamic militants would continue to pour into Syria, and establish a launch pad to create ferment in Syria, its region, and beyond.  Examining the situation, two options for coping with the Islamic militants emerge: peaceful coexistence through negotiation and elimination through military action.  The review of each will result in the emergence of one that would best serve US, Western, and regional interests, and especially the interests of the Syrian people.

Kerry’s Assessment of the Islamic Militant Presence

As reported in a September 5, 2013, Reuters article entitled “Kerry Portrait of Syria Rebels at Odds with Intelligence Reports,” at Congressional hearings in early September, Kerry provided an assessment on Islamic militant factions among Syrian opposition forces that US and allied intelligence sources and private experts on the Syrian conflict suggest was optimistic.  Kerry asserted before Congress that the armed opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership, and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution.  He reportedly told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 3rd that “the opposition is getting stronger by the day.”   Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, challenged Kerry’s assertions at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on September 4th.  McCaul told Kerry: “Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time.” McCaul then explained, “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-Qaida 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.”  Kerry went on to explain, “There is a real moderate opposition that exists. General Idriss is running the military arm of that,” referring to General Salim Idriss, Commander in Chief of the Supreme Military Council, the Syrian opposition’s military-wing and commander of the Free Syrian Army. Kerry reported that increasingly, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are funneling assistance through Idriss.  This was a key point as prior, Arab states made deliveries of arms, supplies, and money directly to their main beneficiaries in the field, Islamic militant factions (Please see July 18, 2013 greatcharlie.com post “Obama Emphasizes US Commitment to Syrian Rebels in Saudi Call, But He Can Still Change His Mind.”) 

Looking at US, EU, and NATO intelligence assessments of the Free Syrian Army to date in its September 5th article, Reuters interviewed a US official who explained, under the condition of anonymity, that “Most of the groups battling against Assad are composed of Islamist fighters, but only a small minority could accurately be characterized as extremist.”  However, a second official, who also asked not to be named, explained that moderate opposition fighters appear to have lost strength rather than gained it in recent months. Due to their relative lack of weapons and organization, they are beginning to make alliances with better-armed Islamic radicals, whom they see pursuing more effective actions against Assad’s forces, the official said.  A European security official with experience in the region revealed to Reuters that more moderate rebel factions predominate in the east of Syria and along its southern border with Jordan but have largely devolved into “gangs” whose leaders are more interested in operating local rackets and enriching themselves than in forming a larger alliance that could more effectively oppose Assad’s government.  Joshua Foust, a former US intelligence analyst who now writes about foreign policy, told Reuters, “I’ve heard that there are moderate groups out there we could, in theory, support.”  Foust went on to state, “But I’ve heard from those same people and my own contacts within (US intelligence) that the scary people are displacing more and more moderate groups. Basically, the jihadists are setting up governance and community councils while the moderates exhaust themselves doing the heavy fighting.”

Realities of the Islamic Militant Presence

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 Salafist/Jihaddi factions in Syria.  The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Syria), was active on the ground in Syria under the auspices of their parent group the Islamic State of Iraq (Al-Qaida in Iraq) for years prior to the civil war.  Ever since the formation of Islamic State of Iraq, itself, the eastern region of Syria—bordering the Al-Anbar Province of Iraq—has been a hot spot for Al-Qaida activity.  The Al-Nusra Front, a mostly Syrian organization, is considered an off-shoot of The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, and also Al-Qaida affiliated.  The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and the Al-Nusra Front have been a driving force in the Free Syrian Army.  For the balance of the civil war, Al-Nusra Front 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, they are now known best by their rogue acts.   Several news organizations have been covering the Syrian civil war from its start.  There are journalists in nearly each one who have observed or recorded members of Islamic militant factions abuse and kill captured Syrian military personnel or suspected Assad regime supporters.  Some of their stories and recordings have been recently released.  The front page of the September 5, 2013 edition of the New York Times included a photo of Syrian Army prisoners being prepared for execution by Islamic militant rebels.  This horrific scene brings home grave realities about the situation in Syria regarding the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian opposition’s war on Assad.  Nothing the Islamic militant factions have stated or done in Syria would indicate they have a remote interest in working constructively within the Syrian National coalition in reaching the country’s  transition toward a democratic form of government.  Their plan to create an Islamic mini-state is already underway. 

Deadly clashes have raged between the mainstream fighters of the Free Syrian Army and Islamic militants while also at war with Assad regime forces.  The fighting is viewed by intelligence and analysts and experts as a parallel struggle for Syria’s future.  In the greatcharlie.com post of July 11th, entitled, “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” pointed to a July 8,, 2013, New York Times article detailing how Islamist brigade of Ahrar Al-Sham, along with Al-Nusra Front fighters, ejected a mainstream Free Syrian Army unit, the Farouq brigade, from town of Raqqa.  The Islamic militants accused the Farouq brigade of having hoarded arms and refused to go to the aid of allies during the Qusayr battle.  They also alleged that some of its members of consorting with women and drinking wine. In the most recent violent incident, in Dana, members of an extremist Islamic militant faction were accused of beheading two rival fighters and leaving their heads beside a can near the town square. On July 2, 2013, the BBC confirmed Islamic militants killed a popular Catholic priest in the convent of the town of Ghassaniya.  The priest had fled to the convent after his monastery, Saint Simon, was bombed by Islamic militants. In Aleppo and Idlib provinces, Al-Qaida affiliated Islamic militant units were accused of trying to monopolize wheat and fuel supplies creating even greater shortages for residents.  Throughout towns and villages under Free Syrian Army control, Islamic militants have attempted to impose their strict conception of Islamic law, sometimes even carrying out summary public executions.  This has created popular resentment against them among average Syrians.  Since that time, Islamic militant factions have continued to abuse and kill Syrian citizens, and intensified their attacks upon mainstream Free Syrian Army groups and Kurdish groups.  Popular secular Free Syrian Army commanders and fighters have been murdered by their so-called allies.  So egregious have been the acts of the foreign fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham against Syrian citizens, who did not support the regime, that the Syrians of the Al-Nusra Front, themselves, became perturbed and expressed displeasure over the foreign fighters announced plans to create their own Islamic state on Syrian territory. 

Significant numbers of Islamic militants continue to pour into Syria.  Pakistani Taliban have set up a base in Syria, to assess the needs of the jihad in Syria, and work out joint operations with Islamic militant factions present.  Pakistani Taliban 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.  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.  Back in May 2013, the Russian Federal Security Service revealed that it was aware that 200 Russian and European fighters had joined the Free Syrian Army in May.  By June 2013, at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated the number of Russians and Europeans in the Free Syrian Army’s ranks had reached 600. 

Option 1: Peaceful Coexistence with Islamic Militant Factions Through “Negotiations”

As it was their goal in Syria, Islamic militant factions, may still seek to create an Islamic mini-state in Syria after the civil war.  However, the creation of a separate state with separate laws for some Syrians, trapped in, would have to live by, would be an anathema to everything the Syrian opposition struggled for in the civil war.  It would be a bitter reminder to the Syrian opposition of its failure to create a free and democratic Syria for all Syrians.  Such a state would create fears, not only in Damascus, but in other capitals of the region, that an Islamic militant mini-state would become a launch pad for relentless attacks against them.  Those nearby states include Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.  Leaders of the Syrian National Council, the political-wing of the opposition movement have found it difficult to communicate with representatives of Islamic militant factions.  Communicating with the Islamic militant groups in the field on occasion has proven to be daunting.  A number of secular Free Syrian Army commanders and fighters were killed attempting to make contact with Islamic militant factions.  If an agreement is reached on Syria and it requires them to leave its territory, Islamic militant factions must comply.  Ostensibly, an effort could be made to provide Islamic militant factions notice of their disposition in Syria under the authority of a transitional government.  They would also need to be given official notice to leave Syria.  This information could be communicated to representatives of their organizations by the Syrian National Council, leaders of the Supreme Military Council.  If that were to fail, diplomats from Arab states that have been the primary benefactors for the Islamic militant units such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, could present notice to the Islamic militants.  Those countries might have some leverage as the funding stream for the Islamic militants.  However, the Islamic militants may be unwilling to respond.  It would be easy enough for them to recognize the relative strength of their position against the transitional government. 

The best case scenario would be similar to that of the foreign fighters present in Bosnia after the war.  The Dayton Peace Agreement ending the war required foreign fighters to leave Bosnia.  This demand was communicated to Islamic militant factions in Bosnia through the President of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Alijah Izetbegovic, and his government.  It was enforced by the robust 60,000 member NATO force, I-FOR, that entered Bosnia immediately after the peace agreement was signed.  However, many of the Islamic militants remained in Bosnia and were welcomed by Bosnia’s Muslim community to do so.  They married Bosnian women and became part of the society.  Unlike Bosnia, there is little chance any community in Syria would want the Islamic militants present.  The experiences of Syrian civilians with Islamic militant foreign fighters have been quite different from those of the Bosnians.  Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps units, Quds Force members, and Ministry of Intelligence and Security officers left Bosnia when the war ended.  Yet, some Iranian troops who fought in the Bosnian War remained. Welcomed more warmly into the Bosnian Muslim community than any other group of foreigners, they also married Bosnian women and usually joined the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Hezbollah completely evacuated Bosnia when requested to do so.  As in Bosnia, fighters for Hezbollah would likely rapidly leave Syria and return to Lebanon.  Unlike the Islamic militant factions opposing the Assad regime, Hezbollah’s military-wing would be fairly easy to communicate with, either through Iran, its political leadership in Syria and Lebanon, and the Assad regime, through the Russians. 

If Islamic militant factions were to comply with an order to leave Syria through a peace agreement, it is difficult to imagine where they would go.  It is difficult to picture how their demobilization would be enforced.  It is also difficult to envision how they would arrange transport anywhere given their numbers.  Although Kerry’s assessment of the size and strength of the Islamic militants was at 15 percent to 25 percent, that would still put their number in the tens of thousands.  Further, essentially every Western intelligence organization has assessed they are growing in size and capability.  Conceivably, they might charge into Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey, but their presence would not be tolerated in any of those states.  They could possibly leave the Levant and travel to the heart of the Middle East, Southwestern Asia, South Asia, and North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Southeastern Europe, Western Europe, or Southern Russia!  Yet, transportation would remain an issue, and it would still be difficult to find any country in those regions that would be interested in having them.  They would pose immigration and security issues wherever they went.

Option 2: Confronting Islamic Militant Factions During the War or Afterward

In a July 20th, New York Times article, David Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and 31-year intelligence veteran suggested 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, although he did not say how that could be accomplished.  He noted that left unchecked, they will become bigger,” Shedd further stated, according to the New York Times article that “Over the last two years they’ve grown in size, they’ve grown in capability, and ruthlessly have grown in effectiveness.”  Eventually, the Islamic militants would need to be confronted.  It is unlikely that a transitional government would have sufficient military power to eject the Islamic militants from Syria.  As was also explained on greatcharlie.com in its July 11, 2013 post “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 if necessary, on the side of mainstream Free Syrian Army groups against Islamic militant factions would mainstream opposition forces have a chance, during the war, of being positioned to defeat Assad’s forces.  Taking this step would put the US in a position to do much more on behalf of the Free Syrian Army and eventually, a transitional Syrian government.

If a prospective peace agreement in Syria required Islamic militant factions, postwar, to join some grand coalition in the transitional government and abide by its authority or leave Syria, they might not join.  However, given their disposition, they would certainly refuse to go.  It is unlikely that a transitional government would be ready to promote their interest, force them to leave.  It might behoove the US, in support of the transitional government and its own interests, to assist the transitional government.  The US could announce internationally that the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, the Al-Nusra Front, and other rogue Islamic militant factions are not part of the Syrian opposition.  Indicating the degree of danger the Islamic militant factions posed to a secure and sustainable peace in Syria, the US could conduct an operation to destroy those organizations entirely as part of its Counterterrorism policy and in support of its Syria policy.  The US could potentially muster its Western allies, as well as Russia and Iran to support its efforts.  Assistance from Western allies, Russia and Iran could primarily include intelligence, however, operational assistance and personnel could also be requested.  The operation, executed by the US Joint Special Operations Command, would need to be quick, intense, and effective.  All Islamic militant groups hostile to the concept and intent of the Syrian opposition and the Friends of Syrian, and identified as having attacked mainstream Free Syrian Army fighters, would be identified and targeted for strike.  Units, arms, equipment, supply lines, communications, commanders, headquarters, and financial support would be targeted. All entry points for Islamic militants should be identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance.  Foreign fighters entering Syria must be targeted.  Islamic militant units must be completely destroyed.  Any foreign fighters later reaching Syria should not be able to find evidence that any Islamic militant factions ever existed there.

A US decision to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, Al-Nusra Front the and other rogue Islamic militant organizations in Syria would likely please the Russians and Iranians.  If any cooperation on a counterterrorism effort could be established, there is a chance that step could further enhance joint diplomatic efforts between those countries on Syria.  Among many things, for Iran, such an effort would allow it to work alongside the US and Russia, as an equal partner, and act as a power player in its region.  For Russia, it would mean a resolution to the conflict, hopefully allowing it to pursue interests acceptable to the US in Syria.  For the US, it would mean establishing peace and stability in the region, placing Syria on the path toward transition to a democratic government, and perhaps opening the door to further cooperation with Russia and Iran on other issues.

Assessment

Moving and destroying Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile put the chemical weapons out of reach for Islamic militants in Syria.  However, it does not address the issue of their presence.  The current size and strength of Al-Qaida affiliated Islamic militant factions in Syria is considerable.  Allowing them to become a fixture in Syria would hobble a transitional Syrian government, and could lead to its eventual collapse. The US Congress has pressed the Obama administration regarding the Islamic militants.  Initially, Members of Congress, as well as legislators and officials in other Western capitals expressed concern that Western arms sent to Syria would fall into the hands of rogue Islamic militant factions, and their concerns were legitimate.  Concerns were so great in Britain that its Parliament refused to allow its forces to join the US in military action in response to the August 21st chemical weapons attacks.  Now is the time for the US Congress to urge the Obama administration to orient itself on coping with the Islamic militant problem.  True, Congress was grumpy toward President Obama’s approach to Syria, and perhaps should have been more supportive of the presidential authority.  Yet, conversely, President Obama should be responsive to the concerns of Members of Congress, as representatives of the American people, over the Islamic militant problem in Syria.  The White House should be able to recognize the urgency of this issue itself.

Negotiating with the Islamic militants could be attempted, but it is implausible to think results could be achieved with them through formal talks.  Only through military action, unilateral or multilateral, could the US relieve Syria of a barbaric Islamic militant threat.  A transitional Syrian government will not have the means to eject Islamic militants from sovereign Syrian territory.  The entire US effort in Syria hinges on how the US responds to the Islamic militant presence.  Syria could become a state hampered by disunity and conflict caused by Islamic militants, or transform into a state ready to become a positive and welcomed player on the world stage.  Through potential cooperation against rogue Islamic militant factions, the US, Russia, and Iran, the three states might create conditions that might facilitate greater cooperation on Syria among them.  They may urge parties to the conflict to find a peaceful solution to the civil war.  By working together to cope with the Islamic militant issue, the US, Russia, and Iran would take further steps forward together beyond the Syria issue, and establish a path toward real cooperation, possibly leading a resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. 

(Over the past three months through blog posts, greatcharlie.com has been providing insights into US, EU, NATO intelligence assessments of the Free Syrian Army’s situation on the ground, the organization’s deterioration, and coping with the Islamic militant threat in Syria.  Those posts include: Is the US Public Aware the US Is Said to Plan to Send Weapons to the Syrian Rebels?, June 14th; The Price of Loyalty to the Syrian Opposition for the US May Be A Useless Investment of Arms, June 20th; Opposition in Syria Continues to Fracture: Yet This May Create a New Option For Its Allies, July 11th; Obama emphasizes Us Commitment to Syrian Rebels in Saudi Call, But He Can Still Change His Mind, July 18th; Congressional Hurdles Lifted on Arming Syrian Rebels, Beware Assad, and Islamic Militants, Too!, July 25th; and more recently, “White House Says Still Fact Finding Reported Chemical Weapons Use and Weighing Military Options, August 27th.)

Iran’s Parliament Grills, but Mostly Confirms, Rouhani’s Cabinet: Hossein Dehghan Faced No Battles

An August 15, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Iran’s Parliament Grills, but Mostly Confirms, New President’s Cabinet,” reported that after four days of grilling by the conservative dominated Parliament, the proposed cabinet of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani survived its confirmation hearings largely intact.  Rouhani’s nominees for the ministries of education, science, and sport were rejected based on accusations by some Members of Parliament that they had been close to the 2009 Green Movement that held protests against Iran’s leaders.  Fifteen other nominees were approved.  According to the New York Times, Rouhani’s appointment of Mohammed Javad Zarif as foreign minister suggested that Rouhani was moving forward with his campaign pledge to seek a more constructive dialogue with the US than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Zarif was Iran’s internationally popular, long-time permanent representative to the UN.  He engaged in postgraduate studies at the San Francisco State University and received his doctorate in international law and policy at the University of Denver and is an expert on the US. 

Yet, the New York Times, August 15th article did not mention that the constructive dialogue will include voices from other appointees such as Ali Akbar Salehi, Ahmadinejad’s foreign minister, and now the new head of Iran’s atomic energy agency.  An August 15, 2013, Washington Post article reported Salehi had been head of that agency for a year, prior to becoming foreign minister.  He was also Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency prior to that.  An even stronger voice helping to formulate that dialogue will be Hossein Dehghan, Rouhani’s appointment as defense minister.  According to an August 13, 2013, Washington Times article, Dehghan spent his entire military career in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (“IRGC”).  Until his confirmation as defense minister, he served as chairman of the political, defense, and security committee of Iran’s Expediency Council.  That Council is an advisory body that is appointed by, and serves, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  The prominent religious, social, and political figures on that council have supervisory powers over all branches of government.  Hardline, and part of the “voice of the Revolution,” Dehghan’s presence will not only impact Iran’s dialogue with the US but also Iran’s approaches to important foreign and defense policy issue such as Syria.  An examination of available options for Dehghan to take as that policy advances indicate President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime could be made even stronger and the Syrian opposition forces even less effective in the field, while at the same time countering Western efforts to counter any Iranian moves.

Dehghan: An IRGC “Icon”

Dehghan is no stranger to the type of operations required of Iranians military and security forces in Syria.  What might be telling of Dehghan’s approach may be his experience as an IRGC commander in Lebanon.  Dehghan joined the IRGC in 1979 and rose quickly through the ranks, becoming IRGC commander in Tehran.  He was sent to Lebanon after the Israeli invasion in 1982 to help establish a military-wing for Hezbollah.  By 1983, Dehghan was appointed commander of IRGC forces in Lebanon.  Allegedly, while in that command, Dehghan received instructions from Tehran to attack peacekeepers of the Multinational Force in Lebanon.  It is further alleged that Dehghan, after providing them with IRGC funding and operational training, directed Hezbollah operatives to engage in martyrdom operations against the Marine barracks and French paratrooper barracks in Beirut.  The operative detonated a truck bomb at the Marine barracks, destroying the building that housed them and tragically killing 341 and wounding several others, most of whom were asleep at the time.  In coordination with that attack, a truck bomb was used by another Hezbollah operative against the French paratroopers barracks, killing 58 soldiers.  (Iranian diplomats and officials would explain that Iran does not engage in assassination or terrorism.  They would call allegations, such as these made of Dehghan and the IRGC, baseless and ridiculous, and part of an effort by detractors to demonize the Islamic republic.)  Experienced, action-oriented, and hardline, (ruthless at times), Dehghan is dedicated to ensuring a strong future for Iran’s military and security forces.  He very likely views Syria as a good opportunity to prepare and test a new generation for the responsibility of protecting Iran’s interests globally.

The Situation in Syria As Dehghan Inherits It

On June 22, 2013, in Doha, Qatar, the Friends of Syria group, (organized by former US Secretary of State  in 2012 to support Syria’s transition to a democratic government), recognized the impact Iranian forces and Hezbollah fighters were having on the ground in Syria.  The Friends of Syria vowed to increase the scope and scale of assistance to the Syrian opposition’s political wing, the Syrian National Council, and its military wing, the Supreme Military Council.  US Secretary of State John Kerry stated the Friends of Syria had also determined the Assad regime had crossed a red-line with its reported use of chemical weapons.  Further, the Assad regime had already internationalized the militarization of the conflict by allowing the involvement of Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah.  This statement clearly indicates the Friends of Syria, which includes the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates were willing to wage war with Iran by proxy in Syria.  Through leaks from the US officials, it was revealed that the plan was to ramp up Free Syrian Army combat capabilities to a level at which it could launch a concerted attack against Assad’s forces and allies by August!  Considerable activity has been witnessed on the Southern Front, around Damascus, attempting to make gains that should impact diplomatic efforts by the Friends of Syria with Russia, Iran, and Syria.  They have made good use of training in Jordan organized by the Central Intelligence Agency, and have received an intermittent flow of arms and supplies from Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate.

Yet, bringing the fighting force of the Supreme Military Council, the Free Syrian Army, up to snuff to engage in major combat operations against the Syrian Armed Forces and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies has proved a far more difficult task than ever imagined by the Friends of Syria.  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 July assessment of the situation in Syria completed by NATO, 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 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 to 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.

Approaches Available to Dehghan on Syria

Dehghan was chairman of the political, defense, and security committee of Iran’s Expediency Council when the decision was made to intervene in Syria with Iranian military and security forces.  Dehghan will unlikely choose to freeze or withdraw in the face of any challenge by the Friends of Syria or as part of some comprehensive deal with the US along with other issues.  In taking steps to counter and defeat Western efforts against the Assad regime and Iranian military and security forces, themselves, Dehghan might choose between two options.

First Option

The first option, as Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University has predicted, would be for Iran to move up the” ladder of escalation.”  That would mean having IRGC, Quds Force, and Ministry of Intelligence and Security personnel flood into Syria.  Outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could initiate the increase as one of his final acts in office, creating a new era in power projection for Iran.  Elements of the increase might include bringing heavy artillery and rocket batteries in country, along with Iran’s own air defense systems for force protection from any Friends of Syria intervention.  Massed fire missions could be executed with heavy artillery and heavy rockets, along with airstrikes, to destroy Free Syrian Army units being organized and armed for an attack.  Marshalling points and supply routes for arms and military materiel from the US, EU, and Arab states for the Free Syrian Army could face artillery onslaughts.  Attacks in depth with these weapons could have a multiplier effect for the Syrian Army and its Iranian allies as they begin the reduction of Free Syrian Army territory.  Armored and mechanized units would also become more apparent.  They would provide the Iranian and Syrian forces with mobility and firepower and a maneuver capability unmatched by the Free Syrian Army.

The Iranian Navy might move into the Mediterranean Sea using the Russian naval base at Tartus, Syria as a port, and provide fire offshore in support of movement by Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah units.  The ships’ air defenses could be integrated with Syria’s air defense system.  (Beyond warfighting, it could engage in joint exercises with the Russian Mediterranean fleet.)  Iran might also deploy a close air support capability from attack helicopter units to fighter-bombers to facilitate movement by ground units.  Combat support and combat service support units could be sent in to enhance military movements and Syrian government’s control of recaptured territory.  Within Iran itself, there may be a modest mobilization of Basij volunteers for service in Syria. 

However, attempting to protect large forces projected a long distance from Iranian territory and resources may prove difficult.  If Iranian forces massed in Syria ever reach the point where they could destroy the Free Syrian Army, Iranian forces would risk being attacked by US, EU, and Arab states, coming to opposition’s rescue.  Iranian forces would likely be cut-off and face the real possibility of defeat resulting from airstrikes and cruise missile strikes.  To cite a few examples of this, in Angola in 1987, South African Army forces projected to Angola, were cut-off and defeated by rebels heavily supported by Cuban, Soviet, East German, and Romanian forces.  In 1982, Argentine forces projected to the Falkland Islands were cut-off and defeated by a highly-capable, sea-based force from Britain, with some US non-combat military support.  In 1991, Iraqi forces sent into nearby Kuwait by Saddam Hussein were cut-off and defeated by a US-led multinational coalition of forces.  Of course, attacking Iranian troops in Syria would also mean the Friends of Syria would be at war with Iran.  Iran has made it clear that in a struggle against the US and EU states, it would not hesitate to attack the interests of those states globally.

Second Option

The second option would have Iran fold all of its forces in Syria into the Syrian Armed Forces.  This act would defeat the claim of an Iranian presence in Syria.  Elements of this approach would include leaving Iranian fighters from the IRGC, the Iranian Army, and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security to remain in Syria, calling them volunteers, and placing them outside of the control of the Iranian government.  This was what occurred during the Bosnia War.  A few thousand IRGC troops and Quds Force trainers folded into the 3rd Corps of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which greatly enhanced the force’s capabilities and the army’s overall combat power.  Russia recently took a similar approach when it removed its military personnel from its Tartus naval base in Syria and replaced them with “civilian workers.”  Russia Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdonov, then made the claim that there was “no one in Syria from the Russian Defense Ministry” and the Tartus naval base had no “military or strategic significance.”  The Washington Post has reported Moscow has an unknown number of military advisers in Syria who help its military operate and maintain Soviet- and Russian- built weapons that make up the core of its arsenals.

To enhance the combat power of units holding volunteers from Iran, the Iranian military could leave dozens of tanks mechanized vehicles, helicopters, heavy artillery, rockets, logistical vehicles, and communications equipment in Syria.  The Quds Force might remain to train, equip, and fight alongside Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces (organized shabiha or paramilitary units), and Iraqi Shi’a militiamen, as part of a covert operation.  Using capabilities provided by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, Iran would also possess the capability to engage in targeted killings of senior and field grade commanders in the Free Syrian Army.  The goal would be to degrade the effectiveness of the force.

Syrian, Iranian and Iranian sponsored troops have managed to coordinate well and cooperate on the battlefield.  At Battle of Qusayr, 6000 Syrian Army infantry troops and supporting armor, initiated the assault by seizing ground, and pushing Free Syrian Army outposts into a killing zone.  Missiles and airstrikes attacked Free Syrian Army shelters at their rear, preventing reinforcements and critical supplies from getting through.  IRGC armored units and other regular units fought alongside the National defense Forces, which included “popular committees” of paramilitaries known as shabiha.  The shabiha were trained by the Iranian Quds Forces.  Some 2000 fighters from Hezbollah, sponsored by Iran, were also part of the main attack and took on the mop-up operations in Qusayr while Syrian and Iranian troops move on to take other points in Homs province. 

An Overpowering Look Would Still Be Avoided

Beyond progressively regaining control of strategic towns, Syrian and Iranian forces may continue to avoid engaging in major offensives with attacks across a broad front against the Free Syrian Army held territory in order to present a visibly, “less-dominant” appearance in the conflict.  The full power and capabilities of the Syrian Armed Forces and its allies have not been brought to bear on the Free Syrian Army.  This may give many in the international community the sense that there is no worry that the Free Syrian Army would be overwhelmed, and there really is no need for emergency action, particularly US and EU intervention.  Supporting this “gentler look” of the Syria and its allies, are arguments made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, portraying Syria as the victim of European leaders “fuelling the fires of war.”

Additional Iranian Support Possible Under Both Options

Make no mistake, the Russians and Iranians are well-positioned in Syria. Regarding Iran’s efforts, as Vali Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, explained in the Chicago Tribune on June 6, 2013, “If there was once a realistic hope that Syria’s civil war would isolate Iran, the prospect has dimmed.”  At stake also for Iran in Syria is the image it seeks to project as a steadfast ally that will not bend to international pressure.  Early on, the Iranians recognized the opening to secure its interests in Syria while other states talked. They, along with the Russians, have raised the bar too high and too fast in the past two years in Syria for the US to do anything too substantial with shipments of high-tech or heavy weapons, even MANPADS, shoulder-launched anti-aircraft rockets—a weapon system always on the Al-Qaida wish-list–to the Free Syrian Army at this point.  This 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. 

Iran could also up the ante by supporting the Syrian Armed Forces with intelligence from espionage, surveillance, and reconnaissance.  It is very likely that at some scale this process is already underway.  According to Geneive Abdo in Foreign Affairs, in the summer of 2011, Iran provided the Assad regime with technology to monitor email, cell phones, and social media.  Iran developed this capability following the 2009 protests and “Green Revolution.”  It invested millions of dollars into creating a “cyber army” to track down dissidents online.  Iran’s monitoring technology is considered among the most sophisticated in the world, second perhaps only to China.  Shortly after Iran shared the surveillance technology with Syria, Assad lifted restrictions on all social networking, most likely to lure dissidents out into the open.

Recent bits of data released by allies of the Assad regime indicate a precise knowledge of most, if not all, aspects of the Free Syrian Army.  The Russian Federal Security Service made it apparent that it had the ability to monitor the activities of 200 Russian and European fighters within the Free Syrian Army in May.  In June, at conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly updated that figure from the Federal Security Services, stating 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Free Syrian Army’s ranks.  While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting Free Syrian Army fighters to discover who among them are Islamic militants, the Russian intelligence service apparently already possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of Free Syrian Army fighters.  With continued assistance from Iran, Syrian military intelligence services, Mukhabarat, could, themselves, penetrate the Free Syrian Army, having operatives pose as dissenters and deserters who want to join its ranks.  Since the Free Syrian Army has willingly taken on many defectors in company and battalion sized groups without any serious vetting, penetration by Syria’s Mukhabarat may have already occurred.

By moving throughout Syria, particularly Free Syrian Army held territory, Iranian intelligence officers can gain information on all aspects of their opponent’s operations and keep their ear to ground, also getting a sense of the Syrian peoples’ reaction to events.  Moving about in a foreign land, surrounded by the enemy, is dangerous work.  Any fears must be controlled.  Capture by Islamic militant factions could mean torture and summary execution.  Yet, collecting such granular information becomes useful in efforts to shape the battlefield for Syrian and Iranian forces.  Opportunities for doing new things can be discovered.  As discussed in the greatcharlie.com July 13, 2013 post, “President-elect Stirs Optimism in the West, but Talks with Iran Will Likely Be Influenced by the Syrian War,” reports exist alleging that with the assistance of Iranian intelligence and the Quds Force, the Assad’s regime has reached an agreement with the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Syria).  A rift between that foreign fighter laden, Al-Qaida affiliated faction and Jabhat al-Nusra, a mostly Syrian member Islamic militant faction, was exploited.  The Syrians of Al-Nusra have grown angry at the foreign fighters mistreatment of Syrian citizens as well as their announced plans to create their own Islamic state Syrian territory.  The Syrian opposition says evidence of the agreement is that Assad’s forces have concentrated their military operations against secular Free Syrian Army units, and more recently has avoided contact with units of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Syria).

Dehghan’s Likely Impact on Rouhani’s Decision Making on Syria

Dehghan is well aware of the advantage Iran has created for Assad by supporting and fighting alongside his forces.  Under either option, Dehghan will continue to enhance the capabilities of Iran’s military and security forces in Syria.  He understands the potential danger that intervention by the Friends of Syria would present to those forces.  However, he has no intention of withdrawing, hesitating, or failing in Syria.  Dehghan likely doubts his potential adversaries would be as committed as Iran to the situation in Syria.

Dehghan, given his previous responsibilities within the Expediency Council, was involved when Iran’s military and security forces entered Syria.  Dehghan will not be willing to surrender the success that those forces have achieved to enable some compromise agreement with the US or anyone else.  He would unlikely advise, support or even entertain any proposal to put before Rouhani to place Iran’s Syria operation on the table for negotiation.  However, in spite of the successes of Assad’s forces with the help of Iran this year, Syria is not yet a complete success.  Assad and his regime’s control over the situation is not secure and sustainable.  The Free Syrian Army still holds territory.  The Friends of Syria, if not completely committed, are still pushing for their desired outcome, Iran’s withdrawal and Assad’s fall.  Dehghan may find that only further advances in Syria can keep his operation from becoming a bargaining chip.  Perhaps Dehghan’s first move, within budgetary constraint, will be to ramp up Iran’s efforts enough to better secure Assad’s position in Syria. That would be his first victory.

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.

Opposition in Syria Continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option For Its Allies

On July 8, 2013, the New York Times reported that in Syria, deadly clashes raged between a mainstream rebel group and a radical faction, both from the Free Syrian Army.  The fighting highlighted the difficulties associated with unifying the military leadership of the Syrian opposition to the government of President Bashar Al-Assad, and even more, having them halt the recent battlefield gains made by the Syrian Armed Forces and its allies.  The clashes also bring into question whether arming Syrian opposition forces may be a viable option at all.  This problem, as well as others facing the Free Syrian Army, troubles policy makers in the capitals of the US, EU, and Arab states who support that force.  However, as the clashes among rival Free Syrian Army units intensify, a new option for supporting the hobbled force, perhaps even more in line with the national interest of its benefactors, becomes apparent.  It may very well be the last, best hope for shaping up the Free Syrian Army and getting things going on the battlefield.

Attempting to Halt the Gains the Assad regime’s Forces

On June 22, 2013, in Doha, Qatar, the Friends of Syria, a group organized by former US Secretary of State  Hillary Clinton in 2012 to support Syria’s transition to a democratic government, vowed to increase the scope and scale of assistance to the Syrian opposition’s political wing, the Syrian National Council, and its military wing, the Supreme Military Council.  The Friends of Syria includes the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.  US Secretary of State John Kerry stated the Friends of Syria had also concluded that the Assad regime had crossed a red-line with its reported use of chemical weapons.  He further stated that the Assad regime had already internationalized the militarization of the conflict by allowing the involvement of Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah.  Through leaks from the US officials, it was revealed that the main plan was to ramp up Free Syrian Army combat capabilities to a level at which it could launch a concerted attack Assad’s forces and allies by August.  However, bringing the Free Syrian Army, the fighting force of the Supreme Military Council, up to snuff to engage in major combat operations, has proven very difficult. The Free Syrian Army is a loose-knit, umbrella group. The recent clashes between the rival factions are made more significant since one faction is an Islamic militant group affiliated with Al-Qaida.  US, EU and Arab state intelligence and special operations forces, already engaged in supplying the Free Syrian Army with arms, military materiel, and nonlethal supplies, have more recently been struggling to determine which are members of Islamic militant groups to prevent them from receiving sophisticated Western weapons. The presence and participation of Islamic militant groups in the Free Syrian Army raised concerns, particularly in Western capitals, at the start of the civil war.  As time has passed, those concerns have not been mitigated in the slightest way.  In fact, the worst concerns about the Islamic militants are being realized.

Islamic Militant’s Destructive Presence in the Free Syrian Army

As the June 22nd New York Times article further detailed, the Islamic militants in the opposition were members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, the new Syria based affiliate of Al-Qaida which includes the well-armed Al-Nusra Front.  In a recent episodes of the struggle include the Islamist brigade of Ahrar Al-Sham, along with Al-Nusra fighters, ejected a mainstream Free Syrian Army unit, the Farouq brigade, from town of Raqqa.  The Islamists accused the Farouq brigade of had hoarded arms and refused to go to the aid of allies during the Qusayr battle.  They also alleged that some of its members of consorting with women and drinking wine. In the most recent violent incident, in Dana, members of an extremist Islamist group were accused of beheading two rival fighters and leaving their heads beside a can near the town square. On July 1, 2013, the BBC had reported Islamic militants killed a popular Catholic priest in the convent of the town of Ghassaniya.  The priest had fled to the convent after his monastery, Saint Simon, was bombed by Islamic militants. In Aleppo and Idlib provinces, Al-Qaida affiliated Islamic militant units have been accused of trying to monopolize wheat and fuel supplies creating even greater shortages for residents..  Throughout towns and villages under Free Syrian Army control, Islamic militants have attempted to impose their strict conception of Islamic law, sometimes even carrying out summary public executions.  This has created popular resentment against them among average Syrians.  According to the New York Times, foreign fighters continue to spill into Syria through its porous borders.  .

The Global War on Terror May Be Over, But Counterterrorism Is Still a Priority

On May 23, 2013, US President Barack Obama may have stated that the open-ended global war on terror had to end.  However, that did not mean that the US has in anyway halted its attacks upon Islamic militants affiliated with Al-Qaida.  The most obvious manifestation of this are the drone strikes that attack Islamic militants in Pakistan, Yemen and wherever they may be operating.  Supporting the Free Syria Army is a “cause” based on the interests of the US to bring down to regime of Bashar Al-Assad and support the establishment of a democratic government in Syria.  Islamic militant groups fighting in Syria albeit may want to remove the Assad regime.  However, it is counterintuitive to seek those goals while arming Islamic militant groups that affiliate themselves with Al-Qaida and are bent on establishing a strict conception of sharia law in Syria.  The attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, DC happened.  The March 11, 2004 attacks in Madrid occurred.  The attacks on July 7, 2005 in London took place.  The attacks on November 26, 2008 in Mumbai transpired.  There were many other terrorist attacks.  Osama Bin Laden, killed by US Navy SEALS on May 2, 2011, was determined to conduct acts of terrorism against the West and Islamic states of which he disapproved.  His organization remains engaged in that effort.  The Islamic militant groups that have clashed with mainstream Free Syrian Army units are the same forces that the world sought to destroy during the global war on terror.

Syria has become a state sized version of the town of Sinjar in Iraq. Sinjar was a location determined by the US Joint Special Operations Command to be the entry point for numerous terrorist groups coming into Iraq.  Under the order of the commander Joint Special Operations Command, then Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, Sinjar was hit hard and effectively in October 2007.  The overall Sinjar effort was said by General David Petraeus, to have done more to halt the terror networks that flowed foreign fighters and suicide bombers into Iraq than any other operation.  With the help of mainstream Free Syrian Army units, US, EU, and Arab state intelligence and unconventional warfare units could defeat Islamic militant groups in Syria and remove them from the ranks of the opposition forces.  Once the Islamic militant hold in Syria and connection to the Free Syrian Army was eliminated, intelligence and special operations forces would have greater opportunities to do other things with the Syrian opposition.

Exploiting the Opportunity Presented

The Central Intelligence Agency and US Special Operations Forces are said to be already working on matters concerning the Free Syrian Army.  The Los Angeles Times reported that operatives of both the Central Intelligence Agency and US Special Operations Forces have organized a secret training program for Free Syrian Army fighters with anti-tank and antiaircraft weapons since November 2012.  Iterations of the training are two-week courses conducted by US as well as Jordanian and French operatives. It  includes training with Russian-designed 14.5-millimeter antitank rifles, anti-tank missiles and 23-millimeter antiaircraft weapons.  Teams of US Special Operations Forces selected the trainees over the last year when the US military set up regional supply lines into Syria to provide the rebels with nonlethal assistance, including uniforms, radios and medical aid.  About 20 to 45 fighters are trained at a time.  Between 80 and 100 Free Syrian Army fighters from all over Syria went through the courses in May 2013 alone.  At the time the Los Angeles Times article was printed, about 100 rebels from Daraa had attended four courses, and rebels from Damascus, the Syrian capital had attended three.  While engaged in training activities, Central Intelligence Agency officers would sit and interview trainees during breaks from sessions, and afterward they would try to collect specific information on the situation in Syria based on intelligence requirements.  The Central Intelligence Agency is also engaged in an effort to eliminate the risk that more sophisticated weapons, such as man-portable, air defense systems (MANPADS), which are shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, would be given to Islamic militant groups.  It has put in place what officials have described as an “elaborate” vetting procedure for the Free Syrian Army fighters they train.  To accelerate the effort, the Central Intelligence Agency is said to be considering placing some units of US Special Operations Forces under its authority for the additional purpose of conducting some of the training. The Central Intelligence Agency is reportedly engaged in joint efforts with unconventional warfare units from Jordan and the United Arab Emirates to enhance the training effort.

To support mainstream groups of the Free Syrian Army, the Central Intelligence Agency and US Special Operations Forces could possible work under a plan that might include some of the following steps.  To begin, the Central Intelligence Agency would need to increase its intelligence collection resources in Syria.  Working with locals and insurgents to collect required intelligence concerning an opponent to be utilized in the development of an operational plan would be the standard operating procedure for Central Intelligence Agency operatives and Us Special Operations Forces.  However, having established very positive links with mainstream Free Syrian Army commanders and fighters, the process of gathering information about Islamic militants within the force would be made less complicated.  When necessary, Central Intelligence Agency operatives and special operations forces, with Free Syrian Army commanders at their side, could quietly interview locals to gain granular information on the Islamic militant groups including the size of specific units, the locations of its fighters, the backgrounds of individual fighters and commanders, unit capabilities, and its combat and nonlethal resources.  Islamic groups that seek to work with mainstream groups would be identified and an effort would be made by the Central Intelligence Agency to establish a rapport with them.  An effort would eventually be made to support those groups and place them under the leadership of the Free Syrian Army.  Islamic militant groups hostile to the concept and intent of the Syrian opposition and the Friends of Syrian, and identified as having attacked mainstream Free Syrian Army fighters, would be identified and targeted.  Special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance means would be used to monitor the locations, daily movements, and activities of the hostile Islamic militant groups.  Leaders, arms, supply lines and depots, and financial support would be targeted. All entry points of Islamic militants should be identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance. Penetrating the Islamic militant groups would unlikely be helpful and would place any assets engaged in that effort at risk once direct action is taken against those groups.  The Central Intelligence Agency could request to have its efforts, and those of US Special Operation Forces, supported by allied intelligence and unconventional warfare units.  A plan would be developed to conduct Free Syrian Army operations without the targeted Islamic militant groups.  Sufficient numbers of mainstream fighters must be trained, equipped and fielded to cover any gaps created by the Islamic militant groups that would be removed from Free Syrian Army controlled territory.  At that time, the Central Intelligence Agency could also engage in a rapid and robust training and equipping of the Free Syrian Army.

Assessment

New voices in the Obama administration at the White House and at the UN, viewing Syria as a humanitarian crisis worthy of some type of intervention, likely have the ear of the president.  As a result, the Central Intelligence Agency may very likely be pushed harder to work with allies and special operations forces to train and equip the Free Syrian Army as it is currently organized.  Currently, the Free Syrian Army lacks the ability to achieve success against the rejuvenated Syrian Armed Forces with its allies. There is no real cohesion within the organization.  Rivalries and divisions are more apparent.  While some type of modus vivendi may have been established among a few units of rival factions in close contact with Assad’s forces, those contacts cannot serve as the foundation of a unified fighting force.  The Assad regime, on the other hand, has very powerful allies ready to support it with money and weapons, as well as fight alongside his forces. Under the most favorable assessment, the Free Syrian Army capabilities cannot be ramped up, and the force cannot fight in concert in a size and strength great enough, in any short period of time, to confront Assad’s forces.   Doing anything too substantial with high-tech or heavy weapons shipments to the Free Syrian Army at this point would be reckless.

Supporting Islamic militants who attack mainstream Free Syrian Army fighters is not in the interest of the US or any of the “Friends of Syria.”  Creating a viable fighting force from the Free Syrian Army as it currently exists with rivalries and clashes will be impossible.  Clashes between the mainstream groups and the Islamic militants are intensifying.  The Free Syrian Army, even if lucky enough under some scenario to defeat Assad’s forces, would not be able to play a role in creating a secure and sustainable peace in Syria because its deep divisions.  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.  It is clear that the more powerful Islamic militant groups as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, the new Syria based affiliate of Al-Qaida which includes the well-armed Al-Nusra Front, are not directed toward a transition in Syria to a democratic form of government.  Only by intervening covertly on the side of mainstream elements against Islamic militant groups adverse to the efforts of government transition supported by the Friends of Syria would the Free Syrian Army have a remote chance of being positioned to defeat Assad’s forces.  Supporting the mainstream groups and eliminating undesirable factions would be a clear demonstration of the Friends of Syria’s continued support for positive change in Syria.  Providing this “helping hand” would prove the organization to be a reliable ally of the Syrian opposition and its original goals.  With the Free Syrian Army facing the possibility of folding under the weight of these clashes, and civilian deaths now exceeding 100,000 as a result of the conflict, time is of the essence.  A decision must be made.  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.  The option presented here is the best option to take if supporting and utilizing the Free Syrian Army remains the goal of the US, EU, and Arab states.

Note: This post is intended as a “think piece” containing observations, ruminations, and reflections for the consideration of greatcharlie.com readers.  It is not intended as an endorsement of, or the presentation of a plan for, US and allied covert action against elements of the Free Syrian Army.