US Approach to Syria: Wait, What?

The United States approach to the Syrian conflict is not one that anyone should look back upon with pride. At best, it will be noted that no one has really done much of anything to help end the Syrian civil war, thus spreading the blame, such as it is. Ultimately the right to determine the future of one’s people – even at the cost of war – is fundamental and the right of the Syrian people, but even something as simple as setting up a border security zone near NATO member and aspiring EU member Turkey has yet to be done. And when Turkey does anything, its actions appear to be more about self-interested bombing of the Kurdish PKK than actually helping Syria. Regional support inside Syria has thus far had a decidedly sectarian motivation: Iran and Hezbollah support Assad and Shiites, Saudis and other Sunnis support Sunnis. And when the US made a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons and Assad broke it, Obama happily stepped down on the ladder placed by Mr. Putin and Assad. While the removal of chemical weapons from Syria was a wonderful thing, one is fully justified in questioning if Obama going back on the word of the United States to do so will ultimately do more harm in the world than good.

There have been many proposals over the past years of conflict for America to do something. Arm Syrian rebels. Bomb Assad. Suppress Islamic extremists in Syria. Provide air support. Establish a no-fly zone. Each has been firmly resisted by the White House. In the meantime, Assad has been carrying out a rather good plan. He focused on the Syrian moderates that could potentially receive Western backing while allowing Islamic extremists that would never pose that threat to thrive. Thus, ISIS. Once ISIS became a threat, he has enjoyed the development of a de facto partnership between his regime and the West in which Western powers and their allies bomb Islamic extremist groups (primarily ISIS, but also groups that sometimes cooperate with moderate Syrian rebels against Assad). Assad does his part. The Pentagon has pointed out before that use of American air power against Assad would require the elimination of Syrian air defenses. This was cited as the reason not to bomb Assad’s forces or impose a no-fly zone to prevent him from bombing Syrian rebels and civilians. Of course, when the targets in question are in fact Assad’s enemies, he has no reason to use his missile batteries.

This all makes sense. No necessarily intelligent for those objecting to Assad, but at least things have gone according to some plan. Assad’s plan, but still, it is something that makes sense. Except…

The Pentagon has announced that a vetted force of Syrian rebels has been through a program to train and equip them to fight ISIS, and they will be backed by the US, including receiving US air cover and close air support against ISIS and any group that attacks them, including the forces of the Assad regime. Wait, what? What happened to not risking US planes against Syrian air defenses? Or escalating? Isn’t this inserting a proxy army into Syria? Before the air support announcement it was simply a program to help the rebels, but if we are going to defend them as well, some people will argue this is now a proxy army. To fight ISIS, sure. I think everyone against ISIS can agree that is a good thing. But it is still a major policy shift.

Additionally, if these fighters are actually well trained and well equipped then they should enjoy good success against ISIS with close air support. And then? I rather doubt that they have forsaken their rebellion against Assad. Unless Assad is confident that the New Syrian Forces army will be stalemated against ISIS or be willing to come to terms with him after pushing ISIS out of Syria, he cannot help but see this as the threat he schemed so hard to forestall.

On the other hand, the “New Syrian Forces” army apparently consisted of 60 guys. The target number is 5,000, but obviously they have a long way to go. I am not sure which is more shocking, that the US is suddenly abandoning years of non-interventionist arguments and risking an air war against Assad’s army by supporting a de facto proxy army in Syrian, or that that army is so pathetically small? Sure, call it a cadre, but it still started out with 60 guys. Reports are that this number has been cut in half with their commander captured by al-Nusra, so one must question the training this program is providing. One would think that such a tiny “army” would have focused on securing its own headquarters, knowing that Islamists would consider it a prime target. So perhaps Assad won’t consider this a threat after all.

Perhaps the saddest thing is to imagine if this program was started three or four years ago. Before Syrian moderates had been so heavily targeted and there were still many thousands of moderates without disqualifying exposure to the most effective fight forces in Syria, which are the extremist organizations. Of course, that was before ISIS rose to take over vast parts or Syria and Iraq, and without such a malign organization to compel some sort of action this program would never have made it out of the White House. In its current form, it will be surprising if enough “vetted” Syrians can even be found to make this program accomplish much. Too bad.