September 22, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: No Easy Task: Supporting an Effective Rebel Force
• While it reads clear-cut on paper, training and arming selected Syrian rebels is fraught with unknowable complications
• It is vital to keep in mind that the various rebel groups are not armies in any sense of the word but rather groups of armed individuals with temporary alliances that have shifted numerous times over the last three years
• The term “moderate” needs to be more accurately defined for Western governments, in that the chaotic nature of fighting and alliances in Syria has meant a blurring of lines that exist mostly on paper, with the Free Syrian Army associated with the Islamic Front, which includes numerous extremist groups
• By definition, if not history, violent extremists fight harder than moderates, setting up a situation where the West might be arming “approved” rebel units only to see those weapons in the hands of The Islamic State (IS) and later to al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, much as what happened several times in Syria and in Iraq, when the Iraqi army melted in the face of IS
• On the positive side, the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers met in New York yesterday, with both sides affirming dedication to fight extremism, though any rapprochement does not include Syria and the fate of the Assad regime.
Along with the potential positive developments found in the emerging coalition to oppose the so-called Islamic State—to include the meeting between the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers yesterday in New York—is the reality that training and arming “approved” Syrian rebels is fraught with unknowable complications and repercussions. The plan rests on assumptions that have proven false both historically and recently. Simply put, the very nature of the fighting in Syria, between irregular non-cohesive military forces in a shifting yet near-stalemate situation, means that traditional approaches will prove insufficient and likely counterproductive.
There are three characteristics of this conflict that will frustrate international plans to create a disciplined and moderate Syrian rebel military force: they aren’t armies; how to define moderate; and extremists fight harder than moderates.
They aren’t armies
It is easy to slip into jargon when describing Syrian rebel units, to call them military forces or armed forces, as if they were the same class as a state-controlled army. The various rebel groups are certainly armed but they must not be confused with Western armed forces that are beholden to a government beholden to its citizens. This is not to disparage the courage or motivation of individual rebel fighters but to highlight that the terms we use in our planning are imprecise and can lead to false assumptions. In reality, many rebel groups are just that, groups of people temporarily fighting on the same side in the same location. Some groups form based on village or family ties, which is understandable, but it doesn’t make them professional. Others bond through circumstance—perhaps filming some attacks for the Internet and then gaining some outside material support—but circumstances can and do change rapidly. Various small groups then cluster into larger ones, while still maintaining their original small-group loyalties. A more accurate term might be militia or gang, but even those groups tend to have more cohesion than the shifting Syrian rebel landscape.
What does ‘Moderate’ actually mean?
In nearly all of the statements and planning objectives for training and arming Syrian rebels is the adjective ‘moderate.’ This term is misleading without context or comparison. More than three decades ago, an international coalition of sorts armed the Afghan rebels, and in theory tried to limit the arms to those rebel groups that were ‘moderate.’ In reality, few of the groups were moderate by Western definition, and the label was ultimately immaterial, as allegiances shifted like sand. What was true 30 years ago in Afghanistan is even more fitting in Syria now. There are no true allegiances in a shifting battlefield filled with irregular forces, and the moderates are mixed in with the extremists. Even now, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), allegedly the most moderate of the bunch, is fighting alongside al-Qaeda's official representative in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), and the Islamic Front, an assorted umbrella alliance that includes extremist groups organizationally opposed to IS but who are nearly as bad.
This arrangement makes perfect sense for poorly disciplined ad hoc forces in highly complicated arenas of Syria such as Abu Kamal, Dir al-Zur, and Aleppo that folded into the ranks of IS with little or no resistance, but it bodes poorly for coalition plans that depend on only assisting the moderate forces, however loosely defined.
Extremists fight harder than moderates
The so-called Islamic State didn't become suddenly strong when it seized important areas of Iraq this summer; it was already strong, in part because of the weapons it seized in Syria over the last two years. One of the unacknowledged truths of the Syrian conflict is that the extremists have fought more successfully than the ‘moderates’—both against the Assad regime and against other rebel groups.
As a result, Western-backed rebel groups have surrendered their weapons to groups such as IS and JN, which defeats the purpose of arming the moderates in the first place. One notable example occurred in December 2013, when extremist groups associated with the Islamic Front seized warehouses filled with weapons and supplies belonging to the FSA and the Syrian Military Council, weapons and supplies provided by Western and Arab governments. This was repeated on an even larger scale when IS took Mosul and the Iraqi army, which had been trained and equipped by the US for over eight years, abandoned immense stores of weapons with very little fight. This last line bears repeating as it speaks directly to current plans to train the Syrian rebels in Saudi Arabia.
After the virtually unlimited money, time, and countless troops and advisors the US invested in training and equipping the Iraqi army, one of its divisions folded immediately in the face of extremist opposition. Plans to provide several months of training to selected rebel groups, however well-intentioned, will probably yield similar results.
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