Beirut, March 10, 2015
The Syrian regime has launched a new offensive under the cover of heavy aerial bombardment in the northeastern outskirts of Latakia, amid opposition fears of massacres in the mountain region.
The government’s latest military campaign, which comes in conjunction with offensives in Aleppo and the south, aims to take the town of Salma, a rebel stronghold approximately 35 kilometers northeast of Latakia.
Rebels first seized Salma—one of the Latakia provinces majority Sunni-populated towns—in December 2012, and have since launched a number of operations from the area, which constitutes the insurgent-held front line to Latakia and the Assad family’s hometown of Qardaha.
“The regime hopes its campaign… will prevent a repeat of attacks like the recent car bombing in Assad’s hometown of Qardaha, put an end to opposition shelling of pro-regime villages in the coastal region, and protect its Al-Nawba Mountain observation point,” Alaraby Aljadeed reported Tuesday.
“If the regime advances beyond [rebel-held mountain areas] the Latakia-Aleppo road will be threatened and, as a result, the regime will have cut off the opposition’s supply line.”
The regime’s campaign—dubbed “At your service Syria”—has pitted government troops backed by National Defense Force militias and Iranian fighters against a coalition of rebel units, including those of the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra Front as well as the Free Syrian Army’s First Coastal Division, which named their defensive operations “At your service God.”
The launch of the regime campaign has raised worries among the Syrian opposition, with the National Coalition warning that pro-Assad troops might commit massacres in the region.
“The regime offensive raises real fears of possible genocidal crimes against the residents of the area,” the Coalition said in a statement issued Saturday.
“Over 6,000 residents of the area have fled their villages and have sought refuge along the border with Turkey for fear of the advance of regime forces.”
In the pre-dawn hours of March 5, government troops launched an offensive in the mountains outside the town of Dorin, which lies a few kilometers south of the regime target of Salma in the Jabal al-Akrad region.
“The Syrian army supported by the National Defense Force troops surprised the militants in the countryside of Latakia,” Pro-Hezbollah daily Al-Akhbar said in its report on the battle.
“In parallel, the army launched another attack on the town of Kinsabba [nine kilometers north of Dorin], to prevent the arrival of any militant reinforcements.”
The regime achieved initial successes in its operations, seizing the Dorin area by March 7, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reported that at least 19 pro-regime troops were killed in the fighting, while rebels lost 14 fighters.
The regime’s ground campaign in the region has been coupled with heavy bombardment, including jet strikes, helicopter barrel bombings and artillery fire, the Observatory reported.
Pro-Syrian regime outlets touted the strategic importance of the fall of Dorin, which at an altitude of approximately 800 meters offers vantage points and lines of sight over surrounding rebel-held areas.
“The fall of Mount Dorin will [facilitate] military action against militants… in Salma because of the reconnaissance coverage provided by the mountain,” a military source told Al-Akhbar.
In the days following the regime’s opening advance, back-and-forth fighting has raged in the vicinity of Salma and the Nabi Younes mountaintop southeast of the town, according to the Observatory, without any substantial territorial gains by either side.
Amid the regime’s aerial bombardment of loactions in the Jabal al-Akrad area, rebels have fired rockets and mortars at regime positions, with the Observatory reporting deadly strikes on Dorin.
The Islamist Ahrar al-Sham claimed rocket strikes on Slanfeh and Aramo, regime positions south of Dorin, while the FSA’s First Coastal Division said it had struck government posts in Dorin as well as Nabi Younes, the highest point in the region.
Regime’s operational goals
A commander from the First Coastal Division—the largest FSA formation in Latakia Governorate—said in an interview that the regime had attacked the rebels’ mountain position to raise the morale of Assad supporters.
“[The regime] chose to enter via Jabal al-Akrad, because the surrounding villages are Alawite, while the villages around Jabal Turkman are Sunni,” Akil Jumaa told Alaraby Aljadeed.
“It chose to enter via Jabal al-Akrad to distance the opposition from pro-regime villages and because of the losses it suffered in Aleppo,” the FSA military official claimed.
“The regime wants to raise the morale of its supporters by storming Salma,” which he called the “key to regime control of Jabal al-Akrad.”
The rebel leader also vowed that his forces were “ready to confront the regime and Hezbollah forces preparing to invade. Salma will be their grave.”
“The formula in the coast will be changed in the next two days,” Jumaa boasted.
Meanwhile, a former FSA commander told the London-based daily that “the regime is taking advantage of weak resources on the Jabal al-Akrad and Jabal al-Turkman fronts, and working to advance on these fronts.”
Malek Kurdi said the regime’s goal was “to reach locations that will allow it retake the Latakia-Jisr al-Shughour road.”
“Making gains in these areas [raises] the morale of its members. [The regime] considers them part of its future state,” he added.
“In the best case scenario [gains in the area] will strengthen its position in the international arena so it can regain control of the rest [of Syria], starting from [the coast].”
However, Kurdi asserted that the regime would not succeed in its plans, saying that insurgents would be able to “acclimatize to sparse resources and engage in guerilla warfare in the same way the FSA did at the beginning of the revolution.”
The regime has tried to make up for troop shortages by pressing navy troops into the battle and enlisting the help of Iranians, Alaraby Aljadeed reported.
A former department chief with the regime’s Marine and Coastal Artillery and Rockets Branch gave details of naval forces participating in the campaign.
“Most people killed in the battle for the coastal region have been from the navy, as the regime has nothing left but the navy and the National Defense Force,” Othman Asbro told the daily.
“The navy has no infantry left,” said Asbro, who documented the names of 21 navy college members killed in recent fighting. “Now, it is only made up of administrative and maritime specialists, signalmen, radio operators, navigators, torpedo-men, coastal artillerymen and boatmen.”
He added however that the regime still has “Navy Seals Battalion 509, which has around 200 members trained in actual marksmanship, and Coastal Artillery Regiment 99 in the village of Arab al-Malek” south of Latakia.
Fighters from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have also reportedly joined the regime’s coastal campaign, with an opposition activist telling Alaraby Aljadeed that “strange people flocked to the town of Jableh for around a month before the battle for the coast [began], via Hamimim Airbase.”
These strangers, he said were able to “walk around the town as they pleased.”
Jableh Local Coordination Committee spokesperson Abu Mulhim al-Jablawi said he believed they were “IRGC fighters, as they disappeared from the town around three days before the battle for the coast began.”
“The regime called all members of its military units to the battle, including NDF [militias]. Only military intelligence members are left in the town,” he added.
“Last Friday saw the first absence of Air Force and Political intelligence [members] in front of the mosques. They usually stand at the doors after prayers to stop demonstrations from starting.”
Beirut, March 10, 2015 by Tom Perry and Laila Bassam
As the United States and Iran negotiate the final stages of a nuclear deal, they are still oceans apart on another area of conflict: the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Assad seems more likely to survive the Syrian crisis than at any point since it began four years ago. Iran’s support is as solid as ever to its confident-looking ally in Damascus.
The days when Assad was largely absent from view and his mere appearance was news have given way to almost daily reports on his activities; recent visitors included four French members of parliament who defied their government’s policy to see him.
The civil war has no doubt left Assad weakened, but he is stronger than the groups fighting to topple him. Powerful states still want to see him gone, but they have shown less resolve than allies who are standing by him.
As the crisis approaches its fourth anniversary, the demand for Assad’s departure is heard less often from his Western foes. Their attention has instead switched to fighting Islamic State, an enemy they share with him.
While the United States and his Arab enemies bomb the jihadists in the north and east, Assad and his allies have launched a major offensive against mainstream rebels and Islamists in an area of greater importance to them, the southern border zone near Israel and Jordan. In Damascus, observers close to the government see this as the start of a phase that will end the conflict on Assad’s terms.
Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah is backing the southern campaign and Iranian advisers are in the field - mirroring the situation in Iraq, where they are helping to oversee operations against Islamic State, said a senior Middle Eastern official familiar with Syrian and Iranian policy.
"The battle in Syria is still a very long one, but without existential threats for the government," he said.
The continued support for Assad has defied the hopes of Western governments that it might wane as a slump in oil prices makes it more expensive for Tehran to prop up the devastated Syrian economy, or as Iran negotiates with world powers for a deal over its disputed nuclear program.
"The Iranians still view Assad as the top man," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because his assessment was based on private conversations. "He is the focal point of their relationship with Syria."
Russia, too, shows no sign of abandoning a leader who finds himself at the center of two struggles: between Moscow and the West, and between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Islamist Iran.
A senior U.S. State Department official said support provided to Assad by backers including Iran had allowed him to avoid a negotiated end to the conflict, and described Iran’s role as “destructive”.
"We continue to coordinate with the international community on ways to limit Iran’s efforts to resupply the Assad regime with the means to perpetuate its brutality against the Syrian people," the official said.
A confident-looking Assad has meanwhile embarked on a public diplomacy campaign, giving five interviews since December. Three were with organizations based in the Western states most opposed to his rule: the United States, France and Britain.
But it seems unlikely to end Assad’s pariah status in the West and among his Arab enemies. U.N. reports detail the army’s use of indiscriminate violence, including barrel bombs. U.S. officials often say he is a leader who has gassed his own people, a charge the government denies.
The war has killed some 200,000 people and displaced close to half the population, according to U.N. figures. Damascus accuses its Western and Gulf Arab opponents of seeking to destroy the country by providing aid to an insurgency now dominated by jihadists who pose a threat to the West.
The state’s territorial grip is much reduced, but it still controls the most populous areas. The rest is divided among jihadists, mainstream rebels and a Kurdish militia that has emerged as an important partner in the U.S.-led battle with IS.
The overstretched military and allied militia have suffered big losses this past year. Even with its air force, the army has been unable to finish off insurgents on important frontlines such as Aleppo.
Insurgents repulsed a recent offensive to encircle rebel-held parts of Aleppo, killing at least 150 soldiers and pro-government militiamen, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group that monitors the conflict.
But neither Aleppo nor Islamic State-held parts of the country matter to Assad as much as the corridor stretching north from Damascus through Homs and Hama and then west to the coast.
Assuming the army and allied militia win, the battle against the insurgents in the southern border zone would eliminate one of the last big threats to Assad.
It would prevent his foreign enemies from funneling military aid to rebels via Jordan, and enable Assad to preserve a frontier with Israel. That is a big consideration for Damascus, Hezbollah and Iran, which have all sought to build popular legitimacy around the struggle with Israel.
"This is considered a qualitative shift in the war we are waging," said Damascus-based strategic analyst Selim Harba.
Mohamed Kanaisi, editor of the state-run Baath newspaper, said: “Military progress must lead to a political solution. The other forces will be forced to deal with the Syrian government.”
VICTORY OR COMPROMISE?
The idea of an outright military victory runs counter to the widely held view in the West that the war can only end with a compromise. Diplomacy aimed at promoting such an outcome has gone nowhere since peace talks collapsed a year ago.
Western officials are seeking ways to prop up what is left of the mainstream opposition so it can go to future negotiations on a stronger footing. The United States is planning to train and equip rebels to fight Islamic State.
But the scale and focus of the program seem unlikely to change the power balance quickly, if at all.
Assad appears to be betting that the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State will force Washington to engage with him, particularly as Iraqi forces prepare to take back Mosul in northern Iraq. An effective campaign against IS in Iraq can only be waged with cross-border cooperation that would stop the jihadists from regrouping in Syria.
Assad says he is already being kept abreast of the U.S.-led air strikes in Syria via third parties including Iraq.
Western officials dismiss the idea of rehabilitating him as a partner in the fight against IS: even if they staged a U-turn, Assad would be incapable of winning back all of Syria, they say.
"You can’t get away from the idea that a Syria with Assad at the helm is never going to be a united one. He cannot reunite Syria. If we cave in on that it will not fix the problem," said one Western official.
The senior U.S. State Department official said: “We maintain our firm belief that Assad has lost all legitimacy and must go. There can never be a stable, inclusive Syria under his leadership.”
March 9, 2015 by Nicholas A. Heras
This month, the United States and several of its Middle Eastern allies will begin training Syrian fighters through a revamped train-and-equip program that will form the core first class of Syria’s non-jihadist armed opposition. At this stage, the program will seek to identify, train, and support 5,000 Syrian rebel fighters a year for three years, and will likely involve the cooperation of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and could also include Jordan. Optimally, the end game of this reportedly more robust train-and-equip program will be a Syria that emerges from its civil war with a pluralistic government, the Assad regime removed, and the more ideologically radical elements of the Syrian rebel movement defeated and marginalized.
The need for a competent rebel force on the ground is heightened by the reality that the large segment of the Syrian population that supports the uprising will continue to need protection and security, but will want it provided by an alternative to the Assad regime. This force will also need to be strong enough to secure the local areas in which it is located and to impede the advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), currently the major policy objective driving the revamped program. As proposed today in a Foreign Policy article by former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, a refashioned rebel army with a unified command and control structure that can enforce discipline within the ranks will be vital, as will its need to appeal to Syria’s minority communities.
Ford referred to the current train-and-equip program as “too little, too late,” and he makes a compelling argument for the administration’s need to either “undertake a major effort or walk away.” But while a target of 15,000 fighters trained over three years may sound insufficient to fundamentally shift the conflict, the effort can have great impact if it serves as a standard-bearing “train-the-trainer” model that builds up over time, from community to community.
From the outset, however, the train-and-equip program will have to answer questions about how its objective for the state will be an improvement over the current Syrian republic which encompasses diverse sectarian and ethnic backgrounds, despite the authoritarian power of the Assad family, the corrupt Ba’ath syndicate deep state, and its brutal security system. Nevertheless, the current Syrian republic, its advocates point out, has a longer and more practiced history of relative pluralism than that of the Syrian opposition, which has largely been splintered by factionalism and its armed groups heavily influenced by militant Islamist ideology. These are valid points, and the United States and its allies will need to address them in order to build up the capacity of the opposition to participate in a transition from the Assad regime.
Thus, United States’ strategic objective for guiding the train-and-equip program should be to build into the training a firm ideological component that seeks a pluralistic and democratic order in Syria, promoting the equal rights of all of Syrians. This will be a challenge, as the U.S.-led effort must reconcile the previous influence of its participating partners, particularly Qatar and Turkey, who have much-criticized records of influencing the armed opposition toward a more militantly Islamist ideological position. It will also need to respect and incorporate, but also moderate, the conviction of many Syrian rebel fighters that they are on a religious mission to fight a corrupt regime. Achieving the right balance in this ideological model, and making it stick for the entirety of the rest of the conflict to follow, would be an accomplishment with potentially exponential effects on the course of the war and its aftermath.
In theory, empowered Syrian rebel groups could stand their ground against both ISIS and the Assad regime, strengthening local governance, and coordinating humanitarian assistance distribution. If performed in a careful, phased manner, the train-and-equip program could focus on the local level to empower rebel communities through humanitarian assistance that is funneled through the vetted rebel groups. The focus should be on building the capacity of the vetted armed opposition to deliver social goods to their communities that are in dire need. This is a means to unify military and humanitarian assistance to the rebels in order to maximize the soft power of the United States on the Syrian opposition.
If the train-and-equip program begins to show success in accomplishing this objective, it will present an active threat to the Assad regime’s narrative that the Syrian rebel movement is a terrorist front bent on targeting and destroying Syria’s pluralism. This would make it the target of the regime and its Iranian allies and their auxiliaries, such as Hezbollah and Shi’i jihadist militias, likely producing another policy dilemma for the administration: whether or not to actively protect the empowered rebel movement it has been building. This will be an important question that could bring the U.S. closer to war with Iran, as it would spell a legitimate threat to their important proxy. This type of rebel rule could potentially establish a pluralistic precedent that could assuage the fears of Syria’s regime-loyalist communities, many of them ethnic and sectarian minorities such as Christians, Druze, and Alawites whose eventual buy-in and participation would be required to achieve a transition from the Assad regime.
However, at this initial stage of the revamped train-and-equip program is the complicating reality that throughout the country moderate Syrian armed opposition groups actively cooperate with the often more powerful rebel factions that seek to establish a fully-functioning sharia state in post-Assad Syria. Syria’s armed opposition is largely, although not completely, composed of groups whose fighters are Sunni Arabs. These factions range from militant Salafist groups such as the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, to groups that have a vision of a state governed by Islamic law that more closely resembles that espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Liwa al-Tawhid, Jaysh al-Islam, and Suqur al-Sham. Many of the fighters in these groups originally joined rebel militias that did not promote a sharia state. However, over time they came to adopt this ideology due to the devolution of the Syrian conflict into one characterized by sectarian anger and ideologically influenced by financial backers in the Gulf Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait.
It is difficult to know for certain which of these groups can be integrated into an expanded train-and-equip program, or if the fighters of these groups are, on average, true ideologues seeking a post-Assad sharia state. Some joined the more militant Islamist factions merely for financial reasons, and may be able to pass the requirement of supporting a pluralistic, inclusive Syria. Nevertheless, Washington is presented with a significant policy dilemma. The pressure of the war has led to greater convergence, operational cooperation, and resource sharing within Syria’s rebel ranks across the ideological spectrum, and the task of vetting fighters and separating them according to ideological distinctions will likely be quite difficult.
The train-and-equip program will thus need to build a sustainable ideological model for the Syrian armed opposition movement. It should seek to work slowly and methodically, acknowledging that not all of the fighters for the revamped opposition army were always perfectly aligned with the vision for a democratic and pluralistic Syria. Realizing this, however, does not preclude the U.S. and its allies from acting now, with the soft power of financial assistance and the hard power of weapons and training, to forcefully insist on an ideological standard for the new rebel army. This effort is as much a struggle to build a pluralistic and democratic model for the Syrian armed opposition, as it is to bring the fight to ISIS and transition from the Assad regime.
Nicholas A. Heras is the Research Associate in the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS)
February 26, 2015
February has witnessed an uptick in hostilities between Jabhat a-Nusra and non-allied rebel brigades in the Idlib countryside.
Sawaiq a-Rahman, loyal to al-Jabha al-Islamiya, kidnapped and hanged a Nusra Emir on February 13 who had executed two local women on charges of adultery, reported London-based al-Arabi al-Jadeed. The same brigade admitted responsibility on February 23 for killing six Nusra fighters near Maarat al-Nuaman, reported pro-opposition Smartnews.
Nusra, meanwhile, has conducted a series of attacks this month on FSA-affiliated brigades in Idlib; storming the village of al-Amiriya on February 21 and burning the house of a local rebel leader.
That move followed a February 16 raid on another town, Ein la-Roz, where Nusra arrested members of Al-Liwa a-Sabia and confiscated their weapons, and a February 14 attack on Maarat Hurma, a Harakat Hazm headquarters.
One high-ranking FSA fighter in the southern Idlib countryside sees Nusra’s raids as part of a larger plan.
“The goal of these operations is to take out some FSA brigades who have weapons and do not submit to Nusra’s orders,” Abu Ahmed al-Idlibi, the alias of the FSA fighter tells Syria Direct’s Muatasem Jamal.
“Nusra does not want anyone to contest their control of the area,” the fighter says.
It wants an emirate of its own in the Idlib countryside.”
Q: Describe the relationship between Nusra and residents in the southern Idlib countryside?
The relationship is awful. Nusra lost its popular support in the Idlib countryside because of bad practices against the locals and its similarity to the Islamic State organization in terms of its actions and unjust laws.
Its relationship with Syrians is like the relationship between a hangman and prisoner.
Q: How is the relationship between Nusra and the FSA battalions in the Idlib countryside?
Nusra does not acknowledge us as a party in the opposition. They consider us agents working for America, the West and the regime, something unacceptable to them.
Therefore the relationship is very bad, and clashes occur between us such as the clash in Maarat Hurma [two weeks ago].
There are also umara [princes] in Nusra who have personal revenge issues with fighters from the FSA because of silly things, so they undertake revenge in the name of Jabhat a-Nusra.
Some FSA officers presented complaints against these Nusra princes to Nusra’s high command, but the command did not respond. They only said that these are personal mistakes from the fighters and they will not hold them accountable.
Q: What are the reasons behind Nusra’s storming of some villages in the Idlib countryside and arresting FSA fighters and burning their houses, as happened in al-Amiriya? Are these operations random or organized, and if so what is their purpose?
There are no real, direct reasons behind these operations. They spring merely from charges against FSA fighters, and guesses that the FSA is assassinating their leaders and umara.
The reason why they burned the house of the leader of Alwiya al-Ansar [Muthqal al-Abdullah] and arrested a number of his fighters [in the village of al-Amiriya] was the charge that he and his forces assassinated some of their soldiers.
We can say that these operations are planned in advance, because Nusra always enters with large columns and not just a small group of fighters.
The goal of these operations is to take out some FSA brigades who to not submit to Nusra’s orders and who have weapons. That is to say, Nusra does not want anyone to contest its control of the area, it wants an emirate of its own in the Idlib countryside.
Q: How does Nusra’s raiding and arresting of supporters and fighters with the FSA impact the rebel’s battles against the regime, especially on the fronts like Morek and Jabal a-Zawiya?
I can see that after these arrest and raid operations against FSA fighters, the regime’s soldiers have become comfortable on the fronts. For example, FSA fighters on the Morek front do not fire at the regime now, they are simply stationed in the area.
As for what remains of the fronts in Jabal a-Zawiya, the FSA is exhausted, and of course that impacts the course of battles with the regime, and puts the regime in a stronger position.
Q: What is the FSA’s stance towards these arrests and other Nusra actions?
The FSA does not want to fall into a conflict with a third party, i.e. Nusra. The conflict with IS and the regime is enough. The FSA fears that it will become embroiled in killing Muslims—but if things get really bad, there will be strong responses against Nusra in the future.
Q: What was Nusra’s reaction to residents who protested against them? Did their treatment of civilians under their rule improve afterwards?
Their reaction was to raid and arrest. They threatened the locals that they would open fire on them if they came out to protest in the future.
Nusra is showing a different face from that when it entered the Idlib countryside several months ago. It has become influenced by IS and IS’s actions, and felt that it gained control of the southern countryside, so showed it true, ugly face to the locals.
Q: A few days ago one of Nusra’s ammo depots was blown up in the village of Bilin in Jabal a-Zawiya, and a number of Nusra fighters were killed, just as a Nusra car was targeted recently. Does the FSA have a relationship with these anti-Nusra operations?
I don’t think it’s farfetched that any party has a relationship with these operations against Nusra because they have come to have many enemies.
March 9, 2015 by Robert S. Ford
The current U.S. strategy in Syria isn’t working. Despite the coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State, the group still has strategic depth in Syria to back its campaign in Iraq. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, meanwhile, isn’t fighting the Islamic State — it’s locked in combat with the moderate opposition. Despite Washington’s hope for a national political transition away from Assad, there is no sign of a cease-fire, much less a comprehensive political deal.
More than ever, Americans — and Syrians — need to ask themselves what has gone wrong and what can be fixed. U.S. strategy needs to center on taking back ground from the Islamic State and driving a wedge between Assad’s small ruling circle and his increasingly wobbly support base so that a new government can be established to rally more Syrians against the jihadis. Reinforcing Syria’s moderate rebels is still the key component in achieving these goals, but we — and they — have to get the strategy and tactics right.
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.
Moreover, Assad will likely make good on his recent threat in a Foreign Affairs interview to attack the U.S.-trained Syrian rebel force. This is nothing new: Assad’s ground and air forces have consistently targeted moderate armed groups fighting the Islamic State in northern and eastern Syria over the past two years.
If the administration wants these beleaguered fighters to be successful, it will face the question of expanding the U.S. air mission in Syria. Protecting these small units from Assad air force attacks, even in eastern Syria, would require some kind of no-fly zone, a step the administration has long resisted. If the Obama administration goes through with such a step, it ought also to negotiate a package deal with the Syrian opposition and regional allies to get all sides on the same page on a strategy for degrading the Islamic State and achieving a negotiated Syrian political deal.
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. 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.
The United States and Turkey need to find common ground under the revised strategy. Turkey must finally shut off smuggling paths across its borders for the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front, which have been hugely beneficial to these jihadi groups.
Ankara has been trying to exploit extremists to fight both the Assad regime and the PYD, the terrorist PKK-affiliate operating in Syria. A U.S. strategy that provides greater support for moderate forces fighting Assad and the jihadis, and which also ends U.S. actions that foster Kurdish separatism in Syria, could convince Turkey to abandon this path.
While U.S. military aid to the Syrian Kurdish fighters from the PYD helped to combat the Islamic State around the northern city of Kobani, it also fosters the PYD’s separatist ambitions. The PYD has already unilaterally announced an autonomous zone in northern Syria, which has spurred fearful Arab tribes in the area either to back Assad or the Islamic State. The U.S. emphasis on using Syrian Kurds against the Islamic State won’t end the jihadi threat — it will only aggravate it, and the broader Syrian conflict. The Syrian Kurds’ demand for decentralization may be the only way to reassemble a shattered Syria one day, but for now, the Americans and their allies must tell the PYD that autonomous zones only belong as part of longer-term political negotiations involving all Syrians.
Hugely boosted U.S. aid to the Syrian opposition should come with strings attached — a lot of them. In return for increased support, the Syrian opposition writ large must agree on these six conditions:
1) That armed groups receiving assistance from the newly created central command will obey its orders only.
2) That the armed opposition will stop atrocities against civilian communities that have backed the Assad regime and that the armed opposition command will accept responsibility for actions of its constituent groups.
3) That the armed opposition will sever all ties with al-Nusra Front.
4) That the armed opposition’s leadership must constantly reiterate that it is not seeking to destroy Christian, Alawite, or other minority communities and is prepared to negotiate local security arrangements, including with Syrian Arab Army elements, to protect all Syrians.
5) That it will negotiate a national political deal to end the conflict without Assad’s departure as a pre-condition.
6) That any political coalition purporting to lead the opposition must have genuine representation from minorities and top-level businessmen in Syria — communities that have, broadly speaking, supported Assad’s government — and that representation will not come mainly from long-term expatriates.
Implementing these steps would help create a moderate rebel force able to confront the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front, and also pave the way for a real national political negotiation. If U.S. regional partners and the Syrian opposition won’t accept the strategy and the tactics to make it work, or if the Obama administration won’t expand its level of assistance and the air mission, then Washington needs to drop the goal of significantly degrading the Islamic State in Syria over the next several years. It would be better for American credibility to walk away than try more halfhearted measures in Syria.
After two years of experience, we should realize that limited actions aren’t enough to address the major threats emanating from Syria. Our foreign partners want U.S. vision and leadership to contain extremists and launch a successful negotiation for a Syrian unity government, which is the only sustainable fix to the extremist threat. Let’s give it to them.