Our Syria policy is failing
A very good, insightful article in Foreign Affairs today by Robert Ford, a former ambassador to Syria, detailing the utter failure of the administration's Syria policy and what might be done to salvage the situation.
Much of what the administration proposed to be done has been made inoperative by events.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration should undertake a major diplomatic and assistance effort, or it should walk away from Syria. Merely continuing to inject small amounts of aid and men in the fight won’t sustainably contain the jihadis or be sufficient to reach the political negotiation the administration keeps hoping for.
The quiet end to the Syrian armed opposition’s Hazm Movement, with which the Americans had worked in northern Syria, was the latest signpost of the current failed policy. With aid coming too little and too late, the movement was easily knocked aside by al Qaeda-linked extremists who gained new territory and border crossings. It is far from the only moderate rebel group to suffer large setbacks in recent months: Others are simultaneously under attack from Assad regime forces (which are strongly reinforced by Iranian and Hezbollah troops), jihadis from the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, and the Islamic State.
Meanwhile, the Americans didn’t ramp up aid to the secular moderates when they needed it most. Instead, assistance to moderate Syrian fighters has been small and erratic, and the rebel fighters have been badly divided by foreign states parceling out desperately needed aid among multiple groups. This has created a vicious cycle, forcing the moderate rebels to compete against each other and to sometimes cooperate with al-Nusra Front. That in turn has aggravated foreign states and scared off any regime elements that might want to negotiate a deal, thus extending the war of attrition to the benefit of the Islamic State.
Rather than boosting the capacity of existing moderate fighting groups, the U.S. administration has decided to build an entirely new force. As currently envisioned, this plan will be too little, too late. The fighting units will be much smaller than Islamic State forces operating in Syria. In addition, the plan will further split the moderate armed opposition and will do nothing to counter the Islamic State’s biggest recruitment tool — the Assad regime’s brutality.
As for solutions, Ford holds out little hope for the administration ramping up aid to the rebels while simultaneously sitting down with regional players and opposition groups to develop a coherent strategy:
The larger package deal is vital. Simply increasing material aid to the moderate fighters in northern and southern Syria, even by huge amounts, won’t be enough.
Simply increasing material aid to the moderate fighters in northern and southern Syria, even by huge amounts, won’t be enough. The key is settling on a revised strategy that establishes a unified command structure for the non-jihadi opposition.
This unified structure must be the sole conduit for external funding, arming, and training. It must include the main non-jihadi rebel groups and must be led by a Syrian who enjoys wide support from Syrians fighting on the ground and from foreign states. Those who refuse to follow orders from the unified command must be cut off from any assistance. This is the only way to end the fragmentation that has long plagued the moderate armed opposition and to ensure it will support any eventual negotiation.
Syrian fighters, especially Sunni Arabs, are best placed to confront Sunni Arab extremists in their country and limit the spread of the extremists’ appeal. This means that Islamist opposition groups that are conservative, but do not insist on imposing an Islamic state by force, likely will be part of the solution.
Bombing IS targets in Syria is doing very little to degrade their ability to fight while making it harder for the few moderate oppposition groups left to gain traction. Most of them are reluctantly joining the AQ-sponsored group al-Nusra, while some are even teaming up with the Islamic State because of the terrorists' relative success on the battlefield.
What the administration has proposed has been too little, too late and not pursued with the kind of determination that is needed. When Obama alters the policy again – the third such revision – he will be forced either to expand the U.S. role in the conflict or to walk away.
Halfway measures simply are not cutting it.