November 5, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: The Death of the Free Syrian Army?
There have long been doubts as to the wisdom of providing heavy weapons to ‘moderate’ Syrian rebel groups. It formed under the rubric of The Free Syrian Army (FSA), with checkered loyalties and uncertain capabilities and the goal of fighting, firstly, the Assad regime and now highly cohesive and motivated extremist groups such as The Islamic State (IS). As has been demonstrated throughout history and most recently in Iraq last summer, providing weapons doesn’t make a group of disparate units into an army. More often than not, a well-equipped but poorly motivated and disciplined group collapses when tested, and its weapons end up in the wrong hands. Recent events in northern Syria not only cast further doubt on the capabilities and loyalties of the two rebel groups who were overrun—not by IS but by the al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra (JN)—they also stoke uncertainties as to whether any rebel group can succeed given the realities and complications of the battlefield.
Harakat Hazm, a long-time favored recipient of Western and Arab Gulf lethal and non-lethal aid, was routed in recent days from its headquarters in Khan Subbul to the southeast of Idlib, with reports of mass defections as well as insider attacks by JN fighters who had joined Hazm as ‘sleeper agents.’ The same modus operandi was used against the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF), a relatively well-armed rebel group led by Jamal Ma’ruf, who had the confidence and trust of his Western supporters—but not of many of his own fighters. These two groups were among the more realistic hopes for a rebel victory against IS, even assuming they weren’t in direct conflict with JN, as is the case now.
This of course highlights a fundamental issue with the aims of the anti-IS coalition. The rebel groups don’t want to fight IS right now—and they especially don’t want to fight JN, whom they see not as a terrorist group but as a capable partner against the true enemy—Assad. In short, the coalition plan is to arm and train rebel groups of questionable politics and qualifications that don’t want to fight the group(s) against which they are being armed and trained. For the West, IS and al-Nusra are the targets; for the rebels, it remains Assad. In the chasm between the two disparate perspectives, Assad, IS, and JN will thrive.
With rebel groups now facing Assad, IS, and in some places JN, there is serious doubt as to whether any rebel group can achieve some semblance of military victory. This presents great challenges to plans that depend entirely on a ‘moderate’ rebel victory. The lack of achievable, acceptable military outcomes for the West does open the possibility, however remote, of non-military actors stepping in to help. There are 2.5 million Syrian refugees, and another 6.5 internally displaced Syrians, all of whom need not only help but also leadership and inspiration. Perhaps among them are other avenues to a resolution. Military force is, of course, paramount in a war, but a cohesive identity and mission is even more so. While the coalition works to at least stabilize the situation in Syria, it might be of great future benefit to reenergize non-military actors and organizations that will be needed once the fighting stops, whenever that may be. The ongoing civil war in Syria is the worst-case scenario for all involved. Additional weapons will not alter the grim reality.
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