The once-promising cessation of hostilities that had significantly reduced the fighting between the Assad regime and the armed opposition in Syria is collapsing, and major questions are being asked about the future course of U.S. policy toward Syria. These questions are being asked as, more and more, Al Qaeda and its allies are building a proto-state in northern Syria, which will have potentially dire consequences for the future of Middle East and international security.
A recently released Center for a New American Security report emphasizes that in order to defeat Al Qaeda and its enablers, the United States will need to more proactively support the Syrian opposition to build security and governance institutions in rebel-controlled areas of the country. Beyond the anti-ISIS campaign, there is also a preventative counterterrorism campaign that needs to be waged in other areas of the country, as Al Qaeda and its enablers in the Syrian armed opposition seek to build a sharia state based on the teaching of influential global jihadi theorists.
One of the longest running and strongest criticisms against current U.S. policy in Syria is that it needs to do more than just combat ISIS, and needs to do a better job of supporting the Syrian opposition. The latest vicious cycle of regime-initiated siege-and-starve warfare, and the bombardment of opposition-held areas in Syria’s two most important cities of Damascus and Aleppo, certainly demands stronger international action to enforce the cessation of hostilities. Many critics of the present U.S. approach are seeking a strategy that goes beyond the current diplomatic process and its product—the shaky, frequently broken cessation of hostilities.
They are seeking a strategy that protects Syrian civilians, stems the flow of refugees from Syria that destabilizes its neighbors and increasingly Europe, and which applies military pressure on the regime to bring it seriously to the negotiating table. There is open discussion within the U.S. and its regional partners of “Plan B” courses of action: a military assistance strategy that provides advanced MANPADS directly to rebel groups, and the imposition of a safe zone over rebel-ruled areas of Syria, particularly in the north along the Syrian-Turkish border. While these lines of action deserve strong consideration, as the situation on the ground inside of opposition-held areas of northern Syria stands, there is great risk that pursuing them now could have long-term negative consequences for Syrian, regional and international security.
The reason is that it is a clear fact on the ground is that the IRGC, its proxies and Russia have strengthened and entrenched Assad’s rule over a statelet in western Syria, particularly in Latakia, Tartus, Homs and around Damascus, and have begun expanding this territorial base east to Palmyra. But as much the Assad regime and its allies might like to pretend that they can reconquer all of the territory that has fallen under opposition control, including ISIS’s pseudostate in eastern Syria, they will not accomplish that mission. The reality is that post-Assad Syria exists throughout the country, and that it is unlikely anything short of a significant escalation in the conflict such as a large-scale foreign military intervention will change that.
For most of the civil war, the debate over the proper level of U.S. support for the moderate Syrian opposition has focused on overthrowing the Assad regime, particularly because of its extensive and infamous record of perpetrating human-rights abuses and crimes against humanity. While it is understandable that there is a great deal of sympathy for removing Bashar al-Assad and his enablers from Syria, including Russia and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG) and its proxies, this scenario is unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future. For all intents and purposes, Syria is in a process of partitioning that leaves a large area of the country open to alternative governance structures to the Assad regime.
In the majority Sunni areas that are rebel-ruled, there is a looming war-within-the-war between more ideologically moderate opposition organizations and ideological extremist actors, which will have great impact on the type of Syria that emerges from the conflict. Ideological extremist groups such as Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and its principal ally Ahrar al-Sham, are embedded within the rebel movement throughout northern Syria, and are a formidable vanguard within the anti-Assad fight. The two are parallel organizations established by Al Qaeda in Syria, and following jihadi theorists’ strategic directives for guerilla warfare, they are seeking to be the vanguard of the popular revolution against the Assad regime.
Working with other allies within the armed opposition, Al Qaeda and its enablers are laying the groundwork for the implementation of a sharia state, and building local community cover in Syria for the global jihadist network. It is significant that at the onset of the anti-ISIS campaign, in November 2014, U.S. aircraft struck targets in northern Syria controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham that were suspected of hosting international jihadist operatives. And the resulting furor within the Syrian armed opposition at the U.S. strikes against these non-ISIS, ideological extremist groups demonstrated the considerable and unfortunate power that they hold within Syria’s rebel movement.
The fact of the matter is that although the United States has provided military assistance to individual Syrian armed opposition groups led by “trusted commanders” since 2012, reportedly via the CIA, it has not acted forcibly enough to leverage its influence within the rebel movement to prevent the development of an Al Qaeda proto-state in northern Syria. Worryingly, this situation leads to the distinct possibility that the extremist actors within the Syrian armed opposition would seek to benefit from the more aggressive Plan B lines of effort to their great advantage. These extremist actors could appropriate MANPADs for their own use, or that of transnational jihadist organizations. And a U.S.-built safe zone in northern Syria could potentially empower Al Qaeda and its fellow travelers to further entrench themselves in local, opposition-held communities.
Recognizing this reality, a pragmatic, responsible and forward-leaning U.S. strategy in Syria will need to look less at Assad, and more at the threats that are developing within the Syrian armed opposition under the watch of the United States and its regional partners. The future U.S. line of effort should focus on applying pressure, and then material support, to empower the “trusted commander” armed opposition groups to join together to build stronger, multifactional armed opposition institutions. These moderate armed opposition institutions will need to become real armies, backing strong local governance structures. With sustained U.S. support, financially and militarily, these incipient institutions will need to address the security threats of ideological extremist governance in opposition-controlled areas of Syria, by out-governing and outfighting them. Over time, these institutions will also fight off the Assad regime and its allies from opposition-controlled areas, and negotiate with the successor to the Assad regime and loyalist forces to work toward achieving a long-term political solution to the Syrian civil war.
If the United States wants to have influence over the outcome of the Syrian civil war and its aftermath, it will need to prepare to engage in a comprehensive strategy that builds ideologically moderate opposition institutions to be the strongest governing actors in rebel-ruled areas. To be sure, this effort will be neither easy nor will it happen over the short term, and if conducted using a light footprint approach that emphasizes a U.S. advice, training and support mission, will likely occur over a time scale of a up to a decade or more. Rather than seeking to overthrow the Assad regime, this strategy should build off of already existing U.S. influence within the moderate Syrian opposition, and increase it to be the preeminent military and social force in the surrounding communities.
Nicholas A. Heras is a Researcher in the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
Image: Al-Nusra Front members and a Free Syrian Army commander in Maarrat al-Nu'man, 11 March 2016. Wikimedia Commons/Voice of America