Disaster looms

The Middle East Institute discussion today of building support for moderate Syrian rebel forces stirred both mind and blood.With Kate Seelye moderating, the panel offered a multilayered critique of US and coalition policy.

McClatchy’s Roy Gutman launched with a denunciation of US aid cuts to the 8-10,000 vetted fighters, who are losing ground and personnel to the Syrian regime and extremists. While White House favorites like David Ignatius are declaring the moderates don’t exist, in fact they did well fighting extremists for much of this year (after an initial debacle in the north, where their warehouses were raided by ISIS).

The rebels have suffered more recently from having no unified command, lack of coordination among donors, and the need to fight Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra as well as ISIS and the regime. The US, which a Syrian opined “walks like a turtle while events race like a rabbit,” punishes the opposition for failures that are due in fact to lack of US support. The situation bears all the hallmarks of impending disaster for the moderates. Somehow the opposition is holding its ground in the center of Aleppo, but it is losing manpower to the extremists.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition’s Oubai Shahbandar agreed the situation is difficult, but he thought not impossible. Despite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps fighters operating on the regime side, Aleppo has held. The rebels are resilient. They are fighting Assad, a fight that is inextricably linked to the fight against ISIS. Defeating ISIS in Iraq and containing it in Syria, as the Obama administration would like to do, is not a viable option. Rebel forces in southern Syria are making real progress in surrounding Damascus. The moderates are not finished. There are still viable options if they get sufficient support.

Retired US Army General Paul Eaton said the US has no strategy, just an incoherent response. This is partly because there are no vital US interests at stake in Syria, only “conditional” ones. The war against ISIS is the main US effort, which we entered because ISIS threatened our Kurdish friends in Erbil (not because journalists were beheaded). But the war is existential for President Assad, who is therefore unrestrained even as the US pursues the art of the possible. The Administration has a choice of two out of three: good, fast and cheap. It has chosen good and cheap (and therefore also slow). One year will not be enough. In the meanwhile, the opposition is unable to hold and build.

Retired Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford underlined that this is a two-front war, east and west. The Administration has given priority to the east (Iraq). The west (Syria) is not going well. But there is no solution only in Iraq. Nor is there a solution unless we fight both the regime and ISIS. It may be too late, as we have failed to bomb ISIS forces that are challenging the Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades. Assad and the jihadis are winning in the west. It is unrealistic to expect the FSA to fight only Assad. We need to change the balance on the ground in order to get a political solution in Syria.

Asked about the UN “freeze” proposal for Aleppo, Gutman underlined that past ceasefires have essentially amounted to surrenders of the opposition to the regime. The UN is on its third top-notch special envoy. But he won’t succeed either unless something is done to alter the balance on the ground. Ford noted that of three dozen ceasefires, only one has held up. Eaton said that the US could enforce a freeze, but it has to consider the Iranian and Russian responses if it were to do so.

If we move towards a “no fly” zone, Ford emphasized the need for strict conditions on our friends: we would want the Sunnis to pledge protection for Alawites and other minorities, the Turks to pledge not to push Syrian refugees out of Turkey, the donors to tighten coordination and to push for a political solution. Gutman underlined that it is vital for the opposition to set up shop inside Syria, but doing so will require ground forces (which Turkey does not want to provide) as well as protection from the air. Shahbandar thinks a “no fly” zone would help to change the balance on the ground and win hearts and minds, which are being lost now because of US failure to attack regime forces.

Russia and Iran, the panel agreed, are key international players. Russia has been reluctant to force the regime to fight ISIS or to push Assad out. The Administration has told the Iranians it will not bomb Assad’s forces. But Iran is a key factor in supporting ISIS, which it helped revive after its defeat in Iraq. Tehran is the “turboengine” of terrorism in the Levant, Shahbandar said. The US risks losing all Sunni support if it is seen as allied with Iran.

Bottom line: the US still lacks a coherent strategy against ISIS in Syria, which would require stronger support to the moderate opposition and the fight against Assad, a unified opposition military command and logistics, and more effort to undo Iranian and Russian support for the regime. Otherwise disaster looms.

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