Question for Obama’s Syria plan: Who are the moderate rebels?

Analysis: The US will struggle to find a proxy that shares its priorities and offers a credible challenge to ISIL

Two Free Syrian Army members injured after a machine gun exploded during an exchange of fire outside the Aleppo prison in May.
Salih Mahmud Laila / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

The Obama administration’s plan to pump a half billion dollars into arming and training yet-to-be-identified “moderate” rebels has been criticized and satirized by commentators who believe that no armed faction in Syria could possibly share the U.S. vision for a post-Assad state, and that backing any one of them is dangerous. 

Others more receptive to the strategy say that while searching for armed groups who espouse liberal democratic values is indeed futile, it's certainly possible to find palatable U.S.-friendly factions who at least share Washington’s enemies in Syria. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella name for a disjointed array of localized rebel militias fighting for a civil state in Syria, fits the bill — at least on paper.

The problem, analysts say, is that turning the foundering FSA into a force capable of beating both the Assad regime and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) would require far more help than anyone, including the U.S., is willing to give them. The FSA is currently the weakest force on the ground in Syria, a result not only of inadequate foreign backing compared with that of rival Islamist and extremist factions, but of its own internal divisions, byzantine leadership structure (based in Turkey) and rampant corruption. President Obama himself recently admitted it was a “fantasy” to believe a bunch of “doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” ever had a chance of overthrowing the Moscow-backed regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad by themselves.

Even some of the FSA’s top commanders admit the group no longer enjoys the confidence of Syria's political opposition. In an interview with the Washington Post, one commander called U.S. efforts to patch together the FSA’s disparate brigades into a united army a "cut and paste of previous FSA failures."

“We’re talking about random combatants who group in small numbers all across the country and fight under the FSA banner,” said Abdo Roumani, a blogger in Damascus. With no clear chain of command or defined ideology to bind the geographically scattered brigades, the FSA continues to suffer a steady stream of defections to better-funded rivals — including the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and its rival, ISIL.

Even when FSA brigades have succeeded in capturing territory from Assad’s forces — an increasingly rare event — they have usually done so only by working alongside hardline groups, a complicating factor for Obama’s strategy. Worst of all, the FSA has shown an inability to hold the ground it seizes; in the north, ISIL has simply swooped in to take control of “liberated” territories and expand its own footprint.

For these reasons and more, Obama's plan to give limited backing to “moderate” rebels is more widely interpreted as a means of equalizing the balance on the battlefield in the hope of forcing Assad to the bargaining table, not defeating him, and of creating viable ground forces to partner the ongoing U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIL in northern and eastern Syria.

According to Joshua Landis, a leading U.S. Syria scholar based at the University of Oklahoma, “the last thing we want to do is destroy the rest of government-controlled Syria. There would be millions more refugees pouring into Lebanon and Jordan, and we’d turn the rest of Syria’s cities into Aleppo and Homs," two cities that have been gutted by the three-year civil war.

“Frankly we’ve seen too many failed states fill up with jihadist militias,” he said. “The FSA wouldn’t bring unified rule in Syria, they would bring Somalia, just like you’ve already got in the north.”

That view is not shared by the FSA and its political partners, including the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, which argue that more arms and training would remedy all these shortcomings. They may have a point: a recent survey by University of Maryland-based researchers of a small sample of rebel fighters found that the top two reasons fighters abandoned the FSA were the bleak prospects for victory and the ragtag army’s lack of discipline and organization. Heavy anti-aircraft weaponry, which the FSA have been requesting for years now, coupled with American military know-how could curtail the group’s downward spiral and wean it from its current reliance on less savory factions, leaders of the FSA argue.

“FSA groups are obligated to cooperate with terrorist groups” because of their military deficiencies, said Ali al-Amin al-Suweid, political officer with the opposition group Syrian Revolution General Commission that backs the FSA. “They have been waiting for Obama and the international community to support them from the very beginning. Once the administration decides to take serious action, they will be ready.”

Perhaps, although there are further questions over whether the U.S. would be able to convince its rebel proxies to focus their fire on Washington’s priority enemy – ISIL – when the consensus in their own ranks is that the fight against Assad remains paramount. Fighting both the regime and its extremist rivals at once has proven far beyond the capability of moderate rebel groups; it’s difficult to imagine that the paltry $500 million pledged by the Obama administration will change that.

Abdelnasr Farzat, a top commander of FSA forces in Aleppo until last year, insists his organization is the group “best able to manage the dual crises” of Assad and ISIL. But he acknowledged that the FSA’s raison d’etre is and always be toppling the Assad regime, which it holds responsible for the incursion of radical groups like ISIL.

“We must first eliminate the root cause of terrorism, and then the consequences of terrorism,” Farzat told Al Jazeera, speaking via Skype from Turkey where he is now based.

Many Syrians who detest Assad are nonetheless unconvinced by any of the armed groups waging the war, which has claimed nearly 200,000 lives, a toll that is climbing. FSA brigades have been accused of human rights abuses, such as executing its prisoners and looting. And, Syrians say, the rebels’ military strategy has increasingly involved destroying the country’s infrastructure, alienating even many anti-Assad Syrians

And then there’s the end game: Only a tiny percentage of active FSA fighters support entering negotiations with the regime, according to the University of Maryland survey. After several rounds of fruitless peace talks, “they’ve reached the very dangerous conclusion that the only way to get rid of the Assad regime is to destroy the establishment, the state itself,” said Roumani, the Damascus blogger.

Boosting the military prowess of the FSA might restore the Syrian opposition’s faith in the organization, but U.S. money, arms and training can only go so far in rectifying the group’s image. “The problem is that you’re getting guns for hire, you’re not getting militias with a national scope that inspire loyalty from a broad popular base,” Landis said.

Others point to Iraq, where ISIL surged this summer from its base in Syria and has consolidated control over vast swathes of Sunni land, even proving resilient against the opening salvo of U.S.-led airstrikes there. “The Americans have failed to train an effective Iraqi military even though they occupied Iraq for 10 years,” Roumani said. “We’ve all seen how the Iraqi Army collapsed before the Islamic State. Why should the Americans do a better job with the FSA?”

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