Thinking Aloud: “Rebels, Radicals, and the Regime: Finding a Way Forward in Syria”

Mar. 21, 2015 by Darius

Last week, I saw a panel discussion titled “Rebels, Radicals, and the Regime: Finding a Way Forward in Syria.”  Some of the panelists’ comments are shared below.

Former Ambassador Robert Ford, the last US ambassador to Syria, said that even though the fight against ISIS has taken attention away from the Syrian civil war itself, US interests remain inextricably linked to the fighting between the regime and the opposition.  He told a story of one Syrian fighter, a well-known soccer player originally with the Free Syrian Army, who ultimately joined ISIS, even though ISIS has killed children for playing soccer, because he felt the whole world had abandoned the Syrian people in the face of the regime’s unrelenting brutality.  According to Ford, the only way to durably roll back ISIS is a change of government in Syria.

Ford said there have been some indications of growing dissatisfaction within the regime over the war.  Some of the regime’s supporters might be looking for, or at least more receptive to, a deal.  According to Ford, in order to reach negotiations, the US must first maintain and increase pressure on the regime.  Second, the Syrian opposition must show a willingness to negotiate and demonstrate, in effect, that there is a third option for Syria’s future besides the regime and ISIS.  Ford said that many in the opposition refuse to negotiate until Assad leaves power, which is unhelpful.  However, Ford also felt the US should offer greater material support to those rebel groups willing to negotiate.  Ford had high hopes for the force the US and its regional allies are training and equipping right now.  However, he said there is profound disagreement between the US and its allies over who exactly this force will be fighting.  The US says the target is just ISIS, but Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey all believe the US-backed force should fight the regime as well.  Ford felt it was imperative for the mission to be clarified before the US-backed fighters actually return to Syria and begin fighting or the effort will come apart.

According to Ford, the recent proclamation of a Kurdish autonomous region in Syrian Kurdistan is unhelpful.  Unlike in Iraqi Kurdistan, in Syrian Kurdistan, Arabs and Kurds are intermixed.  Arabs in the area are not happy to be part of “Kurdistan.”  In fact, the Syrian regime has been able to mobilize new military units made up of local Arabs opposed to Kurdistan.

Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, a member of the Syrian American Council (a group advocating on behalf of the Syrian opposition in the US) said he believed that if a no-fly zone had been imposed on Syria in 2012, there might be no Assad and no ISIS today.  Counterfactuals aside, he said that the moderate Syrian opposition is fighting two opponents at once.  Despite their rhetoric, the regime and ISIS spend far more time attacking the moderate opposition than attacking each other.  According to Ghanem, Jane’s, the British defense journal, estimates that only 6% of the regime’s “counterterror” operations have targeted ISIS; the other 94% have targeted other opposition groups.  Likewise, only 13% of ISIS’s attacks in Syria have targeted the regime.

Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argued that the US policy on Syria is being held hostage to its Iran policy.  According to Eisenstadt, for fear of angering Iran and upsetting a potential nuclear deal, the US backed off in Syria once Iran got heavily involved militarily.  Turning to ISIS, Eisenstadt said US interventions are inadvertently helping ISIS recruit.  The US has intervened in support of Yazidis, Christians, and Kurds in Syria, but not the Sunni Muslims who have been dying the most.  ISIS has declared itself to be the defender of the Sunnis.

Somewhat cynically, Eisenstadt felt that a big Iraqi government victory against ISIS in Iraq will ultimately hurt both Iraq and Syria.  Such a victory would only be possible with the support of Iraqi Shia militias and Iran.  Victory against ISIS in Iraq will deepen Iraqi sectarian divisions and will allow for even greater Iranian intervention in Syria in support of the regime. Eisenstadt said that in the event of such a victory, ISIS could return stronger than ever within a few years.

Dafna Rand, currently of the Center for a New American Security and formerly of the National Security Council, where she oversaw US assistance to democratic transitions worldwide, said the US made a “fatal logical error” in 2012 and 2013 by assuming that US regional allies, who share the US’s goal of seeing Assad gone, would be “rowing in the same direction.”  Instead, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, for example, have often found themselves working at cross purposes to each other and the US.  She emphasized that historically, impartial interventions do not work; it is necessary to pick a side.  She expressed optimism, though, that the US had finally picked a side and might now be in a position to intervene more effectively.  In addition to direct military support to the moderate opposition, Rand said the US should provide governance training.  After all, if all goes to plan, these groups will be an integral part of Syria’s next government.  It is vital that they know how to govern.

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