When Barack Obama decided to abandon US involvement in Iraq, he may not have set off the current crisis but he certainly made it possible. Now, as the situation worsens day by day, the options available to the administration become fewer and less pleasant. The silver bullet the administration has sought has been an indigenous ground force in Syria that can fight al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Assad.
To be blunt this is not going to happen.
Ever since the wishful thinking masquerading as military strategy emerged of training ” moderate” Syrian rebels, we have pointed out why this simply is never going to happen (see, for instance, here | here | here | here). The leadership of the “Free Syrian Army” leadership is more interested in its perks (and, if they are smart, in padding their Swiss bank accounts) than they are in fighting. The men they pretend to command are much more interested in fighting Assad that ISIS.
The Free Syrian Army has announced that it will not sign up to the US-led coalition to destroy Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq and Syria.
The group’s founder, Colonel Riad al-Asaad, stressed that toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is their priority, and that they will not join forces with US-led efforts without a guarantee that the US is committed to his overthrow.
“If they want to see the Free Syrian Army on their side, they should give assurances on toppling the Assad regime and on a plan including revolutionary principles.”
In order to survive, they’ve had to create a modus vivendi with the al Qaeda fighters in Syria, often to the point where they are indistinguishable. From the New York Times:
President Obama’s determination to train Syrian rebels to serve as ground troops against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria leaves the United States dependent on a diverse group riven by infighting, with no shared leadership and with hard-line Islamists as its most effective fighters.
After more than three years of civil war, there are hundreds of militias fighting President Bashar al-Assad — and one another. Among them, even the more secular forces have turned to Islamists for support and weapons over the years, and the remaining moderate rebels often fight alongside extremists like the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
“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,” said Aron Lund, a Syria analyst who edits the Syria in Crisis blog for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It is a very dirty war and you have to deal with what is on offer.”
Now the strategy seems hopeless as not only are our preferred allies fighting alongside al-Qaeda, but al-Qaeda has reached a rapprochement with ISIS:
According to U.S. counterterrorism officials, both the North Africa-based al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have seen defections of fighters and leaders to the Islamic State in recent weeks.
The first indictor came Sept. 15 in a joint statement issued by both groups that appeared to support the Islamic State without using its name, U.S. officials said. The groups urged jihadists in Iraq and Syria to join forces against the common enemy and fight the U.S.-led military coalition.
This joining of forces is hardly unexpected. Inside Syria, all rebels, regardless of ideology, are focused on defeating Assad, and for good reason. Fighting a war on two fronts, against more numerous and better armed opponents — which is what we are asking the Free Syrian Army to do — is dumb and should never be voluntarily undertaken.
While I don’t believe arming the Syrian opposition was ever a viable strategy unless we allied with al Qaeda, the fact is that time has passed. The current Obama strategy depends upon a ground force and that force no longer exists outside the US Army and US Marine Corps.