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For the past three years journalists and foreign policy elites have spoken of “the moderate rebels” to distinguish legitimate opponents of the Syrian regime from dangerous Islamist groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. The Obama Administration recently made arming and training these moderate rebels a cornerstone of its strategy to battle ISIS without aiding the Assad regime. President Obama recently requested authorization from Congress to achieve this difficult aim, and Congress obliged. There’s just one tiny problem with this strategy: these moderate Syrian rebels don’t exist.
There are only three rebel organizations with considerable manpower, equipment, and territory inside Syria: ISIS, Jabhat-al Nusra, and the Islamic Front. ISIS has an estimated 20,000 to 31,500 fighters in Syria and Iraq, and controls large areas of eastern Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra is al-Qaeda’s official branch fighting in the Syrian civil war, and boasts around 5,000 to 6,000 fighters. The Islamic Front is an umbrella organization of Islamist brigades supported by Saudi Arabia, and probably consists of around 40,000 to 50,000 combatants. Together these forces account for almost all of the estimated 100,000 fighters of the Syrian opposition.
The Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council, the vaunted bulwarks of the moderate opposition, only really exist in hotel lobbies and the minds of Western diplomats. On the ground, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic Front, and other rebel groups have joined together in fighting against the regime, the Kurds, and ISIS. While coordination between rebel groups is often pragmatic, fighters and weapons tend to bleed between them. Units nominally under the command of the FSA joined Jabhat al-Nusra in 2013, and Nusra forces have merged into ISIS. There is simply no real separation between “moderate” rebel groups and hardline Salafists allied with al-Qaeda. As Aron Lund of the Carnegie Endowment stated, “You are not going to find this neat, clean, secular rebel group that respects human rights and that is waiting and ready because they don’t exist.”
In fact, there is only one significant moderate, secular rebel group fighting in Syria: the Kurdish YPG. The YPG, or People’s Protection Units, have carved out a de facto autonomous region in northeastern Syria, and now spend much of their resources fighting against ISIS. The Kurds are not fond of the Assad regime, but the YPG has actually cooperated extensively with the Syrian army to fight against both ISIS and the rest of the opposition. This is not an indication that the YPG are tools of the Syrian regime. If the Kurds would rather work with Assad than the opposition, it is clear that the opposition poses a serious threat to actual moderates in Syria and minority groups.
The Obama administration’s new plan hinges on Saudi Arabia’s support for the training effort, including an offer to host training camps on Saudi soil. The Saudis are in no way a reliable partner for the U.S. in the Syrian conflict. Even discounting the fact that Saudi-purchased anti-tank rockets somehow found their way into ISIS’s hands, the Saudis have a notorious history of supporting unsavory groups in the Syrian conflict, including Salafists in the Islamic Front. The greater Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the training program is, the greater pressure there will be for Islamic Front fighters to receive U.S. arms and training. After Congress balked at the Obama Administration’s request for $500 million, the Saudis offered to fund the training and arming of the Syrian rebels. This means that there is a large chance the U.S. will directly support groups who work closely with Jabhat al-Nusra.
There is no doubt that the Obama administration knows this. Classified U.S. intelligence is simply better than publicly available sources, particularly in the case of an important conflict like Syria. It defies common sense that the administration would somehow be unaware that the “moderate opposition” exists in name only. Contrary to popular belief, the United States does not stumble blindly and hopelessly through the Middle East. It stands to reason that there is an important motive behind choosing to back the non-ISIS Syrian opposition, rather than tacitly supporting the Assad regime, to counter ISIS.
The United States wants the Assad regime to fall because it is the lynchpin of the regional alliance between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar overwhelmingly desire Assad’s overthrow because they feel significantly more threatened by Iran than they do by any Islamist militant group, even ISIS. Even though the U.S. wants to destroy ISIS, it faces significant pressures to avoid aiding Assad’s regime, and Iran by proxy. While hardline Islamists stand less of a chance of eliminating ISIS than the Syrian Army, they will still certainly weaken Assad and require both Hezbollah and Iran to continue pouring resources into Syria. If this is correct, the United States may rather support al-Qaeda aligned forces than give the Iranian axis a victory in Syria.
We’ve seen this play before. The U.S. often turns a blind eye to the activities of local “allies” if they seem to provide a means of countering regional adversaries. In the 1980s, the U.S. supported the mujaheddin fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, only to ultimately see the Taliban win the resulting civil war and provide a safe haven for al-Qaeda. During the Libyan civil war, the U.S. and its allies bombed Qaddafi’s forces while providing arms to the opposition. Libya has now descended into a bloody civil war, and arms from Libya have flooded the Syrian conflict for years, oftentimes with the aid of the U.S. and its allies. Once they are dispersed, the use and transfer of arms cannot be controlled. Like those in Libya, arms sent to Syria will ultimately find their way to future conflicts throughout the region.
American policymakers have been protected from the consequences of these decisions by virtue of the U.S.’s geographic position, but the Middle East has not. Libya is in tatters. Afghanistan is awash in violence and the Taliban will probably make significant gains there when U.S. forces ultimately depart. There is no end in sight for the Syrian civil war, and there is little confidence even in Washington that the administration’s new strategy will bring an end to the conflict. Expanding the arming and training of the Syrian opposition would be a disastrous mistake. Unfortunately, the administration’s plan passed Congress. If the U.S. program goes forward, the blood from a renewed wave of violence in the Middle East will be on America’s hands.
Ben Reynolds is a writer and foreign policy analyst who graduated from the College of William and Mary. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter at @bpreynolds01.