Syria, the Times and the Mystery of the "Moderate Rebels"

After a two-year absence from the international stage -- during which the mainstream media dispatched them to the realm of nonexistent entities -- on October 1 the "moderate rebels" of Syria were back. The New York Times said so. Russian attacks were targeting moderates rather than ISIS, a man with a camera was quoted saying; and the Times story by Anne Barnard appeared to confirm his suspicion; even as a companion report on Russian actions in Syria by Helene Cooper, Michael R. Gordon, and Neil MacFarquhar revealed that these are the same moderates who were carefully vetted by the CIA, and concerning whom little was heard ever after. Their numbers are put at 3,000 to 5,000, though the Cooper-Gordon-MacFarquhar article leaves uncertain if that is their original or their present strength. This illumination, after so long a blackout, will doubtless be a subject for inquiry in coming days. Why it would seem worthwhile for the Russians to attack so small a force, neither of the Times stories bothered to say; nor did they explain why, if the moderate rebels are anti-Jihadist, they were allowed to garrison in the town of Talbiseh in a region north of Homs that (according to the veteran Middle East reporter Patrick Cockburn) has been "ruled" for the past two years "by Jabhat al-Nusra and associated extreme Islamist groups."

One cannot help being struck, in the Barnard story, by a disparity between the thinness of the evidence and the cocksure tone of the analysis. Consider the single piece of local testimony (generically confirmed by US sources) that is used to get us to take on trust a rebel's characterization of himself:

Among the areas hit was the base of a group that had been supported and supplied by the United States and its allies, said its leader, Jamil Saleh. He said the group's base had been hit severely in Hama Province, wounding eight of his men. Later on Wednesday, American officials confirmed that some groups supported by the United States had been hit.

"We are on the front lines with Bashar Al-Assad's army," said Mr. Saleh, whose group has recently posted videos of its fighters using sophisticated American-made TOW missiles to destroy government tanks. "We are moderate Syrian rebels and have no affiliation with ISIS. ISIS is at least 100 kilometers away from where we are."

But ISIS is not the only enemy of American interests in Syria and Iraq, and it is not the only terrorist entity the US government is pledged to defeat. How close are the moderate rebels to al-Nusra? Again, the Times story does not ask.

An editorial tailwind carried the paper's fascination with the moderate rebels into a second day of coverage on October 2. A story by Barnard and MacFarquhar, "Vladimir Putin Plunges into a Caldron in Syria," speculates that Putin's entry into the war will push "independent Islamists" to ally themselves with al-Nusra, and hence presumably will take them a degree closer to ISIS. "One previously independent Islamist brigade declared its allegiance to the Nusra Front, saying unity was necessary because America and Russia were allied against Muslims 'to blur the light of truth.'" Once more, there is a nagging hint of unasked questions. What exactly is an "independent Islamist"? How close was this brigade to the "democratic values" that America espouses? Indeed, how close could it have been if the allure of al-Nusra was just a bombing attack away?

As it happens, the most damaging words ever spoken about the moderate rebels came from President Obama, in an interview with Thomas Friedman fourteen months ago. The president, displaying a candor that is intermittent with him but remarkable when it occurs, said the idea of a Syrian "moderate rebel" force was the sort of miracle cure that Americans dream up when we come to a section of the world we cannot manage:

It's always been a fantasy, this idea that we could provide some light arms, or even more sophisticated arms, to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists, and so forth, and that that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state, but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah. That was never in the cards.

The "moderate rebels" are a good deal like the Third Force once dreamed of by the architects of the Vietnam War, as an alternative to the French colonial government and the communist Viet Minh. The US found an "independent" ally in the corrupt anti-communist Ngo Dinh Diem but eventually had him deposed and killed. The upright democratic allies on the ground only existed in numbers too weak to count politically or militarily; nor could the CIA in Vietnam conjure them out of thin air; and a failure of rational doubt set the United States on the long downward spiral of that war.

The truth is that Obama when he spoke those words confessed the self-contradiction of his own policy. For his administration continues to harbor enthusiasts of the Third Force idea like Susan Rice and Samantha Power, alongside persons of a less romantic temper such as Vice President Biden and Denis McDonough. When, in August 2011, Obama said that Assad must go and implied that he must go immediately, he was commanding beyond his power to enforce, and he had nobody in view to replace Assad. The same enthusiasts had already goaded him to commit US power and prestige to the destruction of the government of Libya, without any plan for what would succeed that government. The catastrophe that followed has been so complete that for two years now the word Libya has hardly been uttered by the president; but it must be part of what he thinks of, looking back, when he considers some new piece of high strategic advice on Syria.

During his recent encounter with Vladimir Putin at the UN, Obama conceded that America could approve a "managed transition" from the Assad government to an interim government -- that is, a transition with a middle phase to smooth the exit of the detested autocrat. This would be preferable, he meant, to the direct transition from despotic rule to violent anarchy, such as occurred in both Iraq and Libya. Yet a gradual transition had been offered (so long as immediate departure by Assad was not made a precondition) during John Kerry's visit to Moscow in May 2013; and Kerry's counterpart, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, said at the time that Russia was not interested in the fate of Assad so much as that of Syria. Look at the distance between Moscow and Damascus, compare the distance between Washington and Damascus, and you can imagine why a Russian might see things that way. Russia is part of Asia; for us, an ocean intervenes. At any rate, shortly after the Kerry-Lavrov initiative all eyes were turned elsewhere by the second chemical attack and Obama's threat to bomb Syrian government forces -- a sequence of events that could not have scuttled the negotiations more neatly if it had been devised for the purpose.

Now it is 2015, and other regional powers are allied with Russia in the battle against the Islamists, but the New York Times is nostalgic for 2003. Michael Gordon has been writing some of the articles once again, and acting as a filter for the other pieces that he co-signs; and it is appropriate for readers to take him with exactly the trust that he earned by his discovery of nonexistent WMD in Iraq. An article on October 2 by Anne Barnard and Andrew E. Kramer -- the most honest of the four Times stories over the past two days -- levels with readers enough to permit a dry assessment of the Russian motives for entering the fight against ISIS and the Islamist insurgents. It speaks of the same group that the paper just five weeks earlier had called Ahrar al-Sham, under a new and more palatable name, "the Army of Conquest":

Often fighting alongside the Army of Conquest are relatively secular groups from what is left of the loose-knit Free Syrian Army, including some groups that have received United States training and advanced American-made antitank missiles. At least one group trained by the C.I.A. was among the targets hit on Wednesday, which drew an angry response from Washington.

Here, at last, one finds the beginning of a picture of the rebels in context, a picture that suggests the wildness of the American attempt to assert our will on this terrain. Barnard and Kramer continue:

But the Army of Conquest itself embodies the ambivalence of American policy. The United States considers the Nusra Front a terrorist organization, but other groups, including some that have received American funding, fight alongside the Nusra Front, saying that they have no choice if they want to unseat Mr. Assad.

The article closes with John Kerry's warning that Russia must not attack any fighting organization except ISIS. But how have we ever known exactly where ISIS is? ISIS stole a march on the US and its allies in both Iraq and Syria. Everything American authorities have said about their progress and their location has proved unreliable.

"Who Is Fighting Whom?" Such was the question posed by a Times analytic chart at the breaking of the first news of Russian entry into the Syrian war. The US, France, and Britain are said to support "More moderate elements among the rebel forces in Syria." That is one way of putting it; another way is "less extreme"; and these two phrases recur in the self-portraits of the Islamist commanders who want continued US support and subsidy. The ambivalence of the Times echoes the ambivalence of US policy as described by the Times. Both the government and the newspaper that sets the pattern for the mainstream media have taught us that al-Qaeda is the sworn enemy of US interests; that al-Nusra is the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda; and that a pact with either terrorist sect, even for the sake of fighting against ISIS, would be desperate and self-destructive. But we are urged at the same time to suppose -- the complicated relationships of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and Israel encourage it -- that al-Nusra is perhaps a milder version of al-Qaeda and that both are necessary allies in the titanic struggle to overthrow Assad and defeat ISIS in a single stroke. The sheer quantity of self-deception that is required to support this fantasy ought to be obvious; but the fantasy will tempt us until our leaders break once and for all with the dreamers of the Third Force.