In his address last week to the American people regarding US policy toward ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), President Obama said that he would ask Congress for authority and $500 million in funding to arm and train the "moderate rebel forces" in Syria. Well, at least that's the way it's being reported by the media. If you read the transcript of Mr. Obama's speech, what it actually says is...
Across the border in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition. Tonight, I again call on Congress, again, to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters. In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its own people -- a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria's crisis once and for all.
The White House formally submitted its $500 million request to Congress on June 26. The money would go to train and equip "appropriately vetted" members of the Syrian opposition. That's a lot different from "moderate rebel forces", and it is yet another indication that we simply do not know who the "moderates" are in Syria. This little detail continues to be shoved aside by those who stubbornly insist on this strategy.
But it's not an insignificant point. Ask proponents of aiding the "moderates" in Syria to define exactly who they're talking about, and they will immediately say the Free Syrian Army (FSA). But then ask them to tell you what they actually know about this group, and they'll be hard-pressed to even come up with a few names. What they'll probably say is that this is a secular group that wants to establish a democratic Syria. That they're not extremists, they're not jihadists.
What we know of the FSA is that it was originally formed in July 2011 by defectors from the Syrian Armed Forces and a diverse range of volunteers, including, according to Mr. Obama, "former doctors, farmers, pharmacists, and so forth." We know that there have been divisions within the FSA, and that some of the group's factions have joined ISIL, while others have been fighting (out of convenience or necessity) alongside the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria known as the al-Nusra Front (also known as Jabhat al-Nusra).
We know that Senator John McCain established a personal relationship last year with the leader of the FSA's Supreme Military Council (SMC), Gen. Salem Idris, but that Gen. Idris was sacked on February 16, 2014 and replaced by Col. Abd al-Ilah al-Bashir. Senator McCain's relationship with Col. al-Bashir is unclear. Interestingly, according to an article in The New York Times titled "Top Military Body Against Syria's Assad Is in Chaos, Undermining Fight", Col. al-Bashir learned of his appointment on TV, suggesting a rather chaotic organizational structure.
The council's full dysfunction spilled into public view recently when a group of its members decided at a secret meeting to oust its chief of staff, Gen. Salim Idris, and put another man in his place. While the opposition's exiled leadership, the Syrian National Coalition, quickly congratulated the new leader, the move baffled many in the opposition, including the new leader himself, who had not even known he was in the running for the top job. "My friend called and told me, 'Congratulations,' " Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir said in an interview after his appointment. "I asked him, 'Good news?' He said to turn on the television. "I swear to God, no one was in touch with me," he added. "I knew nothing about it."
This is consistent with what we've been hearing all along -- that the FSA is one fine mess, and that it's not clear who its members are or where their loyalties lie. As former US Ambassador to Iraq and Syria Ryan Crocker recently told The New York Times, "We need to do everything we can to figure out who the non-ISIS opposition is. Frankly, we don't have a clue."
Yet, we want to arm and train them?
Now, to make the waters even muddier, the FSA announced a couple of days ago that they will not join the US-led coalition against ISIL. According to a piece in a publication called the Middle East Eye:
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."
Oh great. The people (whoever they are) we supposedly want to arm and train are now dictating the terms of that assistance to us. That's just great.