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.
The recently retired Deputy Director of the CIA, Mike Morell, stated on September 15 that “Assad feels he's winning, so he has absolutely no incentive [to negotiate]. So, enough support has to be provided to the opposition—to put enough pressure on Assad—to bring him to the negotiating table, but not enough support provided to the opposition so that they feel that they don't need to go to the negotiating table.” (When asked whether that support is more or less than Washington had been providing, Morell replied that “I think it’s more.”) The Washington Post reported on October 2 that because the administration seeks a political settlement of the Syrian conflict based on an eventual military stalemate, the CIA is only authorized to provide sufficient support to ensure that moderate, U.S.-backed militias don’t lose, but not enough to enable them to win.
This approach has become divorced from reality.
The notion that Washington can bring about a stalemate in Syria is founded upon the assumption that it can control how strong or weak “the opposition” is. If the opposition were more unified—as it was earlier in the conflict—or if America were the sole or principal backer of the most significant opposition elements, then Washington could conceivably keep its hand on the spigot.
But just as there is not a single, unified Syrian opposition, neither is Washington the rebels’ only outside backer. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, for example, have demonstrated far less risk-aversion than the administration by providing more powerful weapons to factions more extreme than those “supported” by the United States. These outside backers and their hardline proxies will increasingly fill the vacuum created by the declining influence of the moderates and Washington.