The U.S.-backed Syrian opposition unceremoniously fired its military command council members over allegations of corruption, only to promptly unfire them on Friday, in a flare-up of internal politics that may throw another wrench into the Obama administration’s recently announced plans to inject $500 million into Syria’s moderate rebel forces.
The Syrian opposition’s government-in-exile announced in a statement late Thursday night that its head, Ahmed Tohme, had “decided to disband the Supreme Military Council and refer its members to the government’s financial and administration committee for investigation.” The government added that it had canned Free Syrian Army (FSA) chief of staff Abdelilah al-Bashir, just months after Bashir’s predecessor was given the boot.
Hours later, Ahmed Jarba, president of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), which oversees the interim rebel government, said in a statement that Tohme, the prime minister, had spoken out of turn and that the SNC would address “this abuse of power at its next meeting and … take appropriate action.”
Whatever the explanation — one SNC official theorized it was over a leadership struggle between Jarba and Tohme — Friday’s incident comes at an inopportune moment for Syria’s Western-backed rebels, who could inherit half-a-billion dollars in U.S. military aid and training despite concerns that the U.S. cannot guarantee its arms won't proliferate among hard-line and Al-Qaeda-linked rebel factions.
The FSA has long been mired in widespread allegations of corruption, and it has a tense relationship with the SNC — a detached and largely ineffective opposition body with little influence on the ground in Syria — facts which could jeopardize U.S. channels for delivering the military assistance.
But the FSA has also been overshadowed in recent months by the powerful hard-line factions of the Islamic Front coalition, the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — the extremist group currently surging through northern Iraq.
Critics of Obama’s plans to increase military aid to the rebels have cited the presence of the ISIL and other hard-line Islamist factions who have fought alongside the FSA but have also looted their weapons stores in the past. Many fear U.S. weapons could somewhere down the line be turned against American interests should Assad fall and the ISIL or Jabhat al-Nusra ascend amid a power vacuum.
Those fears have been painfully underlined these past weeks, as ISIL fighters in Iraq have looted millions of dollars of American weaponry donated to the Iraqi military over the years.
The $500 million request announced Thursday is part of the $65 billion counterterrorism-by-proxy initiative announced by Obama in a speech at West Point last month. While direct U.S. intervention remains off the table, the White House hopes a reinvigorated FSA will counter the rise of Al-Qaeda-linked extremists in the region and pressure the Assad regime to negotiate a resolution all at the same time.
“While we continue to believe that there is no military solution to this crisis and that the United States should not put American troops into combat in Syria, this request marks another step toward helping the Syrian people defend themselves against regime attacks, push back against the growing number of extremists like ISIL who find safe haven in the chaos and take their future into their own hands by enhancing security and stability at local levels,” National Security spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement.
The U.S. has provided about $287 million in mostly non-lethal aid to the rebels since March 2011, and the CIA has run a covert training program in neighboring Jordan for just as long. That hasn’t been enough — either to turn the tide in the over three-year war against Assad or to keep the FSA competitive with Arab Gulf-backed hardline factions who increasingly attract defectors from the FSA.
“It is a kaleidoscope of a picture, and we are not on the ground to be able to sort it out, doubling our difficulty in knowing who’s who, and who’s aiming for what,” said Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, at a recent Council on Foreign Relations event.
Most analysts nonetheless believe the U.S. knows enough about the rebel landscape in Syria to verify that most arms would wind up in American-friendly hands. Another former ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, told Al Jazeera earlier this month that he fully supported ramping up arms and cash for those groups.
“Anytime you put weapons in a chaotic environment, you can’t guarantee they stay in the right hands,” said Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “It's a cost-benefit analysis. When you look at the situation holistically, what would you rather have — some weapons falling into the wrong hands or an ISIL state like Iraq?”