Rebel factions in Syria continue to make substantial gains against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Gulf and regional parties who have long supported the plight of Syrian rebels to oust the country’s dictator appear to be losing patience with the civil war – now approaching its fifth year – and look poised to capitalize on the recent gains. Despite prognostications that the end is nigh for Assad, others point out that his downfall was predicted in the past but he bounced back. However, he enjoyed support from proxy groups allied with his security forces and although they rescued him from imminent defeat in the past, a similar prospect seems less likely now.
Taking all this in together, what are the implications for the United States? While the U.S. has led an international military bombardment coalition strictly from the air, their support in Syria has largely been non-lethal and humanitarian. The few munitions the U.S. has supplied to rebel groups, namely TOW anti-tank equipment, has helped tip the balance and lead to victory in certain areas. Much attention will be paid to Monday’s diplomatic discussions in Geneva, (the previous two talks in Geneva have all but failed) to see if they bear any fruit. While the U.S. has asserted that the ultimate solution in Syria is not a military one, there is a needed short term military solution. What are U.S. concerns regarding recent rebel gains and apparent impatience of allies moving forward in both the military and diplomatic contexts?
In the short term military context (which also has implications further down the road as well) the biggest concern for the United State is the greater entrenchment of radical groups with more moderate factions on the ground. In the past few months, the two most successful advancements of rebel forces against the Assad regime have been the capture of Idlib and more recently Jisr al-Shughour. The capture of both areas was done by an amalgam of rebel groups aligned under a single coalition banner. Jaysh al Fateh, or the Army of Conquest, was the name of the highly successful coalition that led the offensive in Idlib. The coalition force was led by al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and the Islamist group (which some have speculated to be linked to al-Qaeda) Ahrar al Sham with several other groups of varying underlying interests and ideologies rounding out the force – though, they all fought under one name for the shared goal to reclaim territory from the Assad regime. The success of Jaysh al Fateh was modeled in Jisr al-Shughour with a separate but similar coalition called the Battle of Victory also consisting of more radical Islamist factions.
The success of these coalitions combined with the willingness of Jabhat al-Nusra to cooperate with local militias in major offensives compounds issues for the United States. From the beginning of their establishment in Syria, JN has gone to great lengths to demonstrate to local populations that they are one of them and really seed themselves into local communities. However, the group is not only intent on gaining greater influence both in terms of territory and control gained, but they are also competing against former ally turned enemy, the Islamic State (IS) group. JN’s offensives to overrun other rebel groups that were more moderate and aligned with the U.S. posed distinct problems for the U.S. that wanted to militarily aid these groups in the fight against the Islamic State group. Some of these moderate factions have withered and disbanded in favor of more hard line groups such as JN.
Relatedly, and further complicating matters, many rebel factions inside Syria, as well as U.S. lawmakers sympathetic to their cause, have called for the shipment of lethal aid such as rifles, ammunition, and anti-tank weapons. The U.S. has been skeptical of such armaments for fear of these critical tools falling into the wrong hands. Though, some groups, after being vetted, have received anti-tank equipment, which was thought to have turned the tide against the Assad regime. But the groups operating these weapons were part of recent ground coalitions meaning that the U.S. inadvertently aided more radical groups such as al-Qaeda.
The U.S. is also currently attempting to train a force of Syrian rebels to fight against the IS group in Syria after funds for such an effort were approved by the U.S. Congress last year. However, despite efforts to covertly train very few Syrian groups in the first few years of the conflict, the current effort is rife with criticism. The effort is thought to be too slow and has taken a long time for the U.S. to negotiate with regional partners on where to train forces. After negotiations, the forces will be trained in Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Given the constant shifts in alliances and tactical alignments of groups on the battlefield, vetting groups that are not more radical has been a cause for concern leaving many to wonder how many rebels in Syria can even be trusted. In the recent numbers reported, the U.S. is hoping to have a force of eventually 15,000 troops but current plans are slated to train 5,400 per year. However, despite only 3,000 volunteers, only 1,200 have begun the vetting process.
Additionally, questions have been raised about who these troops are supposed to be fighting in the first place. Despite the posture of the U.S. government that Assad must go, it has not done much aside from rhetoric to fulfill this oration. The rebels are being trained to serve as the ground force that will supplement the U.S.-led global anti-IS group coalition, which has only conducted air strikes. It is not clear how the U.S. will protect U.S.-trained rebel forces if they are attacked by Assad’s soldiers. Furthermore, the ultimate goal of rebel factions is to oust Assad and it is unclear if the U.S. will be able to prevent these forces from attacking or waging offensives against regime bastions – this would serve as a de facto regime change force.
This week, the leader of Syrian opposition National Coalition has requested that the U.S. establish “safe havens” in Syria to protect the gains of rebels. Such a prospect would require coordination between multiple nations and potentially ground troops. The request is reminiscent of calls for the U.S. and international community to establish a no-fly zone in Syria a few years ago to not only protect rebel and civilian areas, but also to serve as a place along the Turkish border to allow individuals to flee and possibly train troops. At the time, the U.S. was not as involved militarily and the establishment of a no-fly zone would have, in the view of some, have been tantamount to an act of war against the Assad regime. Now, the U.S. military efforts in Syria are aimed at the IS group and the U.S. has not done much in terms of direct action against the Assad regime. Despite continued calls for a no-fly zone and the establishment of a safe-haven, such actions would have greater geo-political implications with nations such as Russia and Iran, with whom the U.S. is involved in intense negotiations over curbing their alleged nuclear program.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia have also discussed adding ground troops to the mix. Both nations are vehemently against the Assad regime and have long financially and militarily aided rebel (and Islamist) groups to support his ouster. It is difficult to say how the U.S. would view such a force or how the U.S. might cooperate with them. Moreover, the recent gains by rebel groups have rallied wealthy Gulf and regional donors to once again pledge funds to their cause, provoking claims of aiding more radical groups.
Following the military campaigns that are aimed to roll back the gains of militants (though, the U.S. efforts in Syria are only described as taking place in the “collective self-defense” of Iraq to keep the IS group out and bolster Iraqi security under an “Iraq first” strategy) there must be a discussion about a political process and a next step for governing. The prospect that groups such as IS and JN, along with other rebel organizations of varying interests control territory poses several problems, mainly what happens if Assad is ousted, though, while Assad is still the sovereign, he only controls a small portion of his territory, providing a glimpse into what the future of Syria could look like – especially considering that several experts have weighed-in that the borders of Syria are unlikely to remain complete after the conflict.
For the U.S., while the gains made by rebels are applauded, at the same time, officials do not want to see another territory controlled by those sympathetic to or affiliated with al-Qaeda vis-à-vis pre-9/11 Afghanistan.
The International Crisis Group – an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization focused on conflict resolution – recently offered several solutions and a baseline framework international partners can try to implement toward peace and stability in Syria. In the short-term, nations should work to “strengthen the mainstream opposition in coordination with Ankara, Riyadh and Doha, while signalling [sic] to Iran willingness to negotiate a sustainable resolution that takes Tehran’s core geopolitical concerns into account.” Power should be shifted from more radical groups such as JN and IS while incentivizing moderate groups to participate in the political process as well.
For the U.S., international dialogue that includes all parties will be difficult. While the U.S. is involved with nuclear negotiations with Iran, Iran’s combative posture toward the U.S. in the Middle East continues to be a cause for concern. Their main proxy in Syria, Lebanese Hezbollah, has gained much more influence and there are even reports that Syrian government military soldiers are serving as subordinates of Hezbollah commanders in Hezbollah controlled portions of the country. As such, Iran and its anti-American proxies have a major stake in the future of Syria, which does not favor the U.S. or its allies such as Saudi Arabia. Iran was only invited to the Geneva II discussions on a conditional basis, by the U.S., which raised tensions.
Russia also poses problems as they are aligned with Syria’s embattled leader and the U.S. and other western powers have issued a series of economic sanctions to deter continued aggression in Ukraine. The Ukraine dispute could complicate diplomatic efforts that would bolster groups opposed to Russia and Iran.
The path forward remains unclear. All eyes will be on discussions in Geneva on Monday but there remains little hope that the situation will improve. The U.S., as with all parties involved, might be forced to take the good with the bad in some case.