President Obama’s Misplaced Trust In The “Moderate” Syrian Rebels
One of the lynch pins of President Obama’s strategy against ISIS appears to be increasing support for the so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels, who apparently would be tasked with fighting something akin to a two front war against both the Assad regime in Damascus and the jihadist rebels that are part of and allied with ISIS. Along with an international coalition that seems at the moment to exist only in theory, these rebels allied with groups such as the Free Syrian Army would apparently make up the majority of the ground force that would be necessary to actually push back against the territory gains that ISIS has made in both Iraq and Syria in recent years. In many respects, this is yet another chapter in a debate that has gripped American government since the Syrian civil war started. On the one side, there have been those such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham who have been arguing in favor of arming these so-called Syrian “moderates,” and more, in public for years. More quietly, and as she made clear in her new book, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was an advocate behind the scenes in favor of providing arms for the rebels. While the United States has provided medical and other humanitarian relief, President Obama consistently refrained from providing arms to the rebels, in no small part because of the fact that we could never be sure exactly who we were dealing with, nor could we ensure that the arms we did provide wouldn’t eventually find their way into the hands of the jihadists.
Now, however, those concerns seem to be falling by the wayside. While the Administration has not formally advocated a program to arm and train the rebels, that certainly seems to be where this is headed, and there are reports that the President may ask Congress to do just this before they leave town for the campaign season at the end of the month. As The New York Times points out today in an Editorial, however, this is an exceedingly risky strategy that doesn’t seem to have very good odds of success:
Groups identified by Western intelligence agencies as the moderate opposition — those that might support democracy and respect human rights — have been weak, divided and without coherent plans or sustained command structures capable of toppling the Assad regime. Today, those so-called moderates are even weaker and more divided; in some cases, their best fighters are hard-line Islamists.
In ruling out sending American combat troops into yet another Muslim country, Mr. Obama’s plan relies on these rebels to serve as ground forces to defend and seize territory after American airstrikes in Syria, for which he needs to seek congressional approval. But training and equipping them will be complicated and risky, and will take months, if not longer. ISIS, which the C.I.A. said Thursday has as many as 31,500 fighters in Iraq and Syria, is already well-equipped and has proved to be stunningly skillful at waging war and seizing territory in both Iraq and Syria.
One complication is the federal ban on sending military aid to people with a history of human rights abuses. The C.I.A. has been working for some time to vet the Syrian rebels, but on a limited scale; the expanded mission, which would include more fighters, is likely to make vetting even more difficult.
Beyond that, there are bigger questions. The main target of the United States right now is ISIS, but for the mainstream rebel groups, getting rid of Mr. Assad is the main goal. How do you reconcile those competing goals? How do you avoid a flare-up of anti-American sentiment? The Assad government and its allies Russia and Iran have condemned Mr. Obama’s plans, but how will they react when the military campaign begins? And how can weapons shipped to rebel fighters be kept out of the hands of ISIS?
America’s success at training security forces in other countries is mixed at best. Billions of dollars have been spent building up the Iraqi army, only to have key units collapse in the face of the ISIS invasion of Mosul. Unless the Obama administration can do better with the Syrian rebels, there is no chance the fight against ISIS can be successful.
The questions that the Times raise here are ones that neither the advocates of arming the “moderate” Syrian rebels nor the Administration have answered to date. In addition to these, though, there is also the question of just how much we can trust these so-called moderates. One of the primary fears that have been raised by critics of the idea of arming these groups, for example, has been that they would simply turn around and either trade or sell these arms to more extremist elements who are, after all, fighting for the same thing that they are when it comes to the war against the Assad regime. Not withstanding the fact that ISIS and groups like the Free Syrian Army have apparently clashed on the ground at times, there are also signs that they are far more cooperative with each other than the advocates of greater American military involvement would have people believe. One extreme example of this can be seen in the reports, admittedly unconfirmed, that one of these so-called “moderate” groups may have sold American journalist Steven Sotoloff, who was beheaded by ISIS in one of their now infamous videos, to ISIS at some point after he was initially taken prisoner. If these are the kind of people that President Obama is relying upon in order to push back against an ISIS Army that has a remarkable run of success in recent months, then he would appear to be placing his hopes on the wrong party.
In the end, of course, it’s unclear that President Obama really has a choice here. American air power could do much to degrade ISIS’s military power, but military analysts have said repeatedly that it will not be enough to dislodge the group from the areas where it has consolidated control. That is going to require some kind of offensive on the ground, and that is going to require the Iraqi Army, the Kurds, and the “moderate” Syrian rebels, along with an international coalition that seems to exist more in theory than fact at the moment. The problem that the President faces is that the Iraqi Army has been decimated and demoralized by the ISIS advances, the Kurds seem to be mostly concerned with consolidating and protecting their territory in the north, and that the “moderate” rebels are both weak and unreliable. The only other conceivable alternative would seem to be American, and possibly British, ground forces just as we saw in Iraq in 2003 and in Afghanistan. For obvious reasons, though, the Administration seems reluctant to go down that road, in no small part because the broad political support that we see for the idea of air strikes would disappear if ground forces were sent in. The question is whether the President may find himself forced to make that decision whether he likes it or not,.