In Syria, A Last Gasp Warning for U.S. Influence

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Having engaged intensively face-to-face with the leaderships of nearly 50 Syrian armed opposition groups in recent weeks, I can safely say that the levels of trust and respect for the United States within the Syrian opposition is at an all-time low. Rather than bolstering the confidence and stature of armed groups Washington has been backing, recent U.S. policy decisions and actions in Syria have dramatically undermined their position within the conflict, thereby emboldening extremists.

As such, the United States looks on the verge of losing its last remaining elements of leverage and policy interest in the Syrian conflict. This would be a deeply dangerous development and must be avoided at all costs.

While considerable strategic foreign policy errors have been made since the eruption of conflict in Syria in 2011, the rise of ISIS and its brutal behavior to Syrians and Western hostages alike has encouraged the consolidation of a Syria policy seemingly entirely devoid of an understanding or appreciation of dynamics and perceptions on the ground. In isolation, initiating strikes against ISIS was right and the focus on bringing together a multinational coalition to do so should be applauded. However, the limited focus of strikes in Syria means this coalition is attaining little more than a short-term containment of ISIS ambitions.

More broadly, well over 200,000 people have died in Syria since March 2011, with many tens of thousands more missing. This horrific reality — symbolized for many by the now infamous air-dropped barrel bomb and now also in Damascus by the ground-launched ‘elephant’ bomb — has not only continued every day since U.S.-led strikes began in Syria on September 22, but it has escalated. According to recent figures, the Syrian air force carried out 2,000 airstrikes between October 20 and November 29, killing 527 people and wounding 2,000 others. With American jets in its skies, this is nothing short of remarkable.

For the Syrian opposition, the Assad regime and ISIS are two sides of the same coin, but with Assad being ‘the head of the snake’ and ISIS merely ‘the tail.’ The U.S.-led coalition’s failure to target the regime is therefore perceived as tantamount to a hostile act against the revolution. Moreover, while surprising to outsiders, the Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra is still to this day perceived by many as an invaluable actor in the fight against Damascus and as such, the strikes on its positions are seen by many as evidence of U.S. interests being contrary to the revolution. Although this perception may be subtly changing, with one Syrian Salafist commander admitting that “Nusra is going down the wrong path,” the strike on a headquarters of Syrian group Ahrar al-Sham late on November 5 — confirmed to me by multiple Syrian and international sources — consolidated this impression that U.S. interests have diverged from those of Syria’s revolution.

Were coalition strikes against ISIS in Syria selected in such a way as to protect or defend the opposition and civilians, some level of frustration may potentially be allayed. But this is not the case, as is most starkly demonstrated in northeastern Aleppo, where ISIS remains quietly on the offensive against opposition fighters who are simultaneously facing advancing regime forces to their south. The fate of Aleppo is of existential importance to the revolution, but its apparent supporters in Washington and elsewhere seem unconcerned.

This grim reality has recently been compounded by the proposition of United Nations Envoy Staffan de Mistura to “freeze” opposition-regime fighting in Aleppo as part of a plan to encourage a political solution to the conflict. Speaking privately, all opposition groups active in Aleppo admit they are losing, so while Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem has accepted the freeze proposal, for the opposition to do so would be perceived as a public acknowledgment of defeat. Notwithstanding this, Aleppo-based groups also complain that while De Mistura has visited the regime in Damascus, they have been approached only by his deputies. As such, the UN’s “freeze” proposal as it currently stands is nothing short of a fantasy.

Taken together, these perceived realities have resulted in intense suspicion of U.S. objectives in Syria. It thus follows that opposition groups with clear U.S. backing have seen their reputations decline significantly. The consequences of this shift were made starkly clear in early November when Jabhat al-Nusra — quietly backed militarily by several opposition groups and, more importantly, on a social level by local civilians — dramatically forced the U.S.-backed Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) and Harakat Hazm out of its northern Idlib strongholds. SRF leader Jamal Maarouf, who despite his widespread reputation for corruption has enjoyed impressively positive media profiling in the United States, abandoned his base and fled to Turkey. Moderate rebel leaders later described him as “very nervous” while camped out in Gaziantep prior to a meeting of the Supreme Military Council late on November 17.

That overwhelming SRF defeat has boosted the confidence of extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which has since continued to expand its unilateral control of territory in strategically invaluable northwestern Syria. It has also sparked a crisis of confidence within other Western-backed groups, many of whose commanders now speak passionately about their distrust of their American backers. Again privately, leaders of several of the biggest U.S.-backed groups have expressed their fear that American policy failures in Syria mean their own fighters are defecting to more hardline groups. “Sooner or later, there will only be Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State and the regime,” said one such leader, echoing the words of several others before him. Other moderates so frustrated with the situation have gone so far as to claim they would struggle to condemn Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS if a terrorist attack was carried out in either of their names on Western soil — “if they felt one day of our suffering in Syria, then so be it,” said one Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander.

The recent formation of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) by 72 Syrian opposition groups on November 29 was a symbolically significant development. Coming after four months of intense negotiations between over 100 of Syria’s most impactful rebel groups, the RCC’s structural makeup served as a stark reminder of the consequences of U.S. and Western failure to sufficiently support both the revolution’s core interests and a broad enough spread of groups capable of seeing those interests achieved.

Constituent members of the Islamic Front — which was principally formed in November 2013 in protest against the Geneva II conference and the Western-backed, exiled political opposition — were elected into prominent positions across the RCC’s senior leadership functions, including the head of the Political Office. Ahrar al-Sham, which is viewed with suspicion in the West, gained two seats on the Executive Council, has strongly influenced the RCC’s formation process and is playing a lead role — alongside a team of defected lawyers and judges — within the RCC’s foremost ambition to establish a nationwide opposition judiciary through an apparent pragmatic fusion of Arab civil law and sharia. Whether or not the RCC holds together in the coming months, its elected makeup has underlined a relative lack of standing for groups known to be backed by the United States and the West.

Without question, ISIS is a threat to regional and international security, but so too is a failed state with over 100,000 frustrated armed insurgents. For all Syrian rebels — encompassing U.S.-backed FSA groups to the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham — ISIS is a menace, but the regime is the enemy. Fighting the latter is seen as a way to defeat the former, but not vice-versa. Fighting ISIS and ignoring the regime is simply not an option.

Syria’s armed opposition is now determined to go it alone. As one U.S.-backed leader told me, “there’s simply no trust [in the U.S.] left, we’ll do whatever we need to do for the revolution and our people. For three years we pleaded for American help — one day, they might regret not having given it more honestly.”

Although U.S. officials familiar with the drafting of conditions for the planned ‘train and equip’ program insist that the battle with the regime will not be deferred, recruitment has still not even begun. Moreover, the first batch of trained recruits are unlikely to reach Syrian frontlines until early 2016. By that time, there really might not be any ‘moderates’ left.