The Buzz

Obama’s Faltering Balancing Act in Syria

Moderates within the Syrian opposition are increasingly losing ground—literally and figuratively—to extremists, and the Obama administration is partly to blame. If this trend persists, America is likely to lose its ability to shape events in Syria, which will have disastrous consequences there and beyond. Worse still, it may already be too late to reverse course.

It has become obvious that the administration’s reluctance to more robustly strengthen Syrian moderates and the extremists’ ascendancy are two sides of the same coin. Largely because radical groups generally have access to higher-power weaponry than what the U.S. has been willing to provide to the moderates, recruits are flocking to the extremists’ ranks.

Nobody should have been surprised by reports late last month that thirteen powerful rebel factions formally broke with the exiled Syrian National Coalition—the political arm of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA)—to form an Islamist alliance that includes the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front. On September 29, in a move that has further marginalized the FSA, at least fifty rebel factions operating mostly around Damascus—where the FSA had been the preeminent rebel force—merged to form the Army of Islam, which aims to topple Assad and institute Sharia law. Liwa al Islam, the central group in the Army of Islam, has become far larger than the FSA.

The administration’s professed desire to empower more moderate elements of the Syrian opposition relative to more extremist ones has backfired. Most fundamentally, this is because the administration has demonstrated that it will provide moderates with only lukewarm support at best, thereby decreasing their ability to effectively fight and, consequently, recruit.

It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that the Obama administration has abandoned the moderates. In June, when the White House decided to provide military assistance to Syrian moderates in response to alleged chemical weapons use by the Assad regime, the rebels hoped that these arms would include game-changing weaponry—such as antiaircraft and antiarmor weapons—and that they would be provided quickly. These hopes were soon dispelled, as efforts to provide arms were held up on Capitol Hill; when deliveries finally began to arrive months later, they reportedly only consisted of light weapons, which are already abundant in theatre. And after the massive chemical attack near Damascus on August 21, hopes that President Obama would enforce his “red line” and launch air strikes against the Syrian regime were also shown to be misplaced; instead, the administration, which last December declared Assad to no longer be the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, is now dealing with him to abolish Syria’s chemical arsenal.

A disconnect clearly exists between where the administration wants to go in Syria, and where it is actually heading. There are clear indications that a guiding aim of its Syria policy is to create a situation whereby both the Assad regime and moderate opposition perceive themselves to be strong enough to come to the negotiating table, but not so strong that they feel they do not need to negotiate. The purported means to achieve this is providing the opposition with arms, training, and other forms of material assistance. Extremist elements of the opposition, meanwhile, will hopefully be left out in the cold.