What does it say when the capital of the world’s most powerful nation anchors a major decision about war in what every thinking person acknowledges is a “fantasy” – even the principal policymaker and a top advocate for foreign interventions?
It might suggest that the U.S. government has completely lost its bearings or that political opportunism now so overwhelms rationality that shortsighted expediency determines life-or-death military strategies. Either way, it is hard to see how the current U.S. policy toward Iraq, Syria and the larger Middle East can serve American national interests or translate into anything but more misery for the people of the region.
Official Washington’s most treasured “fantasy” today is the notion that a viable “moderate opposition” exists in Syria or could somehow be created. That wish-upon-a-star belief was the centerpiece of congressional action last month on a $500 million plan by President Barack Obama to train and arm these “moderate” rebels to combat Islamic State terrorists who have been plundering large swaths of Syria and Iraq — and also take on the Syrian army.
Yet, as recently as August, President Barack Obama publicly declared that trust in these “moderates” was a “fantasy” that was “never in the cards” as a workable strategy. Then, on Wednesday, David Ignatius, national security columnist for the neoconservative Washington Post and a prominent booster of U.S. interventionism, reported from a rebel staging area in Reyhanli, Turkey, the same reality in nearly the same language.
“The problem is that the ‘moderate opposition’ that the United States is backing is still largely a fantasy,” Ignatius wrote, noting that the greatest challenge would be to coordinate “the ragtag brigades of the Free Syrian Army into a coherent force that can fill the vacuum once the extremists are driven out.”
Ignatius quoted Syrian rebel commander Hamza al-Shamali, a top recipient of American support including anti-tank missiles, as saying, “At some point, the Syrian street lost trust in the Free Syrian Army,” the U.S.-backed rebel force that was the armed wing of the supposedly “moderate opposition” to President Bashar al-Assad. Ignatius added:
“Shamali explains that many rebel commanders aren’t disciplined, their fighters aren’t well-trained and the loose umbrella organization of the FSA lacks command and control. The extremists of the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra have filled the vacuum. Now, he says, ‘the question every Syrian has for the opposition is: Are you going to bring chaos or order?’”
According to Ignatius, Shamali said he rejected a proposal to merge the FSA’s disparate brigades because “we refuse to repeat failed experiments.” He argued that an entirely new “Syrian national army” would be needed to fight both the Islamist radicals and Assad’s military.
But even the sympathetic Ignatius recognized that “the FSA’s biggest problem has been internecine feuding. Over the past two years, I’ve interviewed various people who tried to become leaders, such as: Abdul-Jabbar Akaidi, Salim Idriss and Jamal Maarouf. They all talked about unifying the opposition but none succeeded.
“An Arab intelligence source explains: ‘Until now, the FSA is a kind of mafia. … People inside Syria are tired of this mafia. There is no structure. It’s nothing.’ And this from one of the people who have struggled the past three years to organize the resistance.”
In other words, the “moderate” rebels – to the degree that they do exist – are viewed by many Syrians as part of the problem, not part of any solution.
Another flaw in Obama’s strategy is that the Syrian “moderates” are much more opposed to Assad’s harsh but secular regime than they are to the Sunni jihadists who have emerged as the most effective fighting force against him.
“If U.S. airstrikes and other support are seen to be hitting Muslim fighters only, and strengthening the despised Assad, this strategy for creating a ‘moderate opposition’ will likely fail,” Ignatius concluded.
That complaint has given new hope to Washington’s influential neoconservatives that they can ultimately redirect Obama’s intervention in Syria from bombing the Islamic State terrorists to a full-scale “regime change” war against Assad, much like the neocons helped convince President George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2003. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocons’ Noses Into the Syrian Tent.”]
In this regard, Obama appears to be the proverbial deer in the headlights. He’s afraid of being called “weak” if he doesn’t go after the Islamic State for its hyper-violent attacks inside Iraq and its brutal executions of American hostages in Syria. Yet, Obama’s also can’t escape his earlier tough talk that “Assad must go.”
Obama’s core contradiction has been that by providing “covert” assistance to Syrian rebels, he has indirectly strengthened the Sunni extremists who have seized the Free Syrian Army’s weapons depots and won converts from the “moderate” rebels, some of whom were trained, armed and financed by the CIA. Meanwhile, other U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have been helping more extreme Syrian rebels, including al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front.
A year ago, many of the “moderate” rebels publicly repudiated the Syrian political front that the Obama administration had put together and instead endorsed al-Nusra. According to one source with access to Western intelligence information, some “moderate” rebels – recruited from Muslim communities in Great Britain and other Western countries – have now taken their military skills (and passports) to the Islamic State.
Yet, instead of acknowledging that this strategy of relying on an unreliable “moderate opposition” is indeed a “fantasy,” President Obama and a majority in Congress have chosen to pursue this geopolitical unicorn with another $500 million and much political chest-thumping.
An Alternative Approach
At this late stage, the only practical strategy would be to press the non-extremist Sunni opposition to work out some form of unity government with Assad who retains strong support among Syria’s Alawite, Shiite and Christian minorities. By enlisting Russia and Iran, Obama might be able to secure concessions from Assad, including the possibility of a gradual transition to a post-Assad era.
With such a political settlement in hand, the focus could then be on defeating the Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s Nusra affiliate and restoring some order to Syria. But the problem is that Official Washington’s neocons and their “liberal interventionist” allies are so fixated on “regime change” in Syria and are so hostile to Russia and Iran that any pragmatic strategy is effectively ruled out.
Though Obama may be a closet “realist” who would favor such a compromise approach, he has consistently lacked the political courage or the geopolitical foresight to impose this kind of solution on the powers-that-be in Washington. Any suggestion of collaboration with Russia and Iran or acquiescence to continued rule by Assad would touch off a firestorm of outrage in Congress and the mainstream U.S. media.
So, Obama instead has charted a course into what he knows to be a fantasyland, a costly pursuit of the chimerical Syrian “moderates” who – once located – are supposed to defeat both the Sunni extremists and the army of the secularist Assad. This journey is not simply a march of folly but a meandering into illusion.