Small Wars Journal

From the Bottom, Up: A Strategy for U.S. Military Support to Syria’s Armed Opposition

Tue, 05/10/2016 - 2:21pm

From the Bottom, Up: A Strategy for U.S. Military Support to Syria’s Armed Opposition by Nicholas A. Heras, Center for a New American Security report

As negotiations continue to uphold a teetering ceasefire in Syria, Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Middle East Security Program researcher Nicholas Heras has written a new report arguing that the primary U.S. effort in Syria should be a bottom-up strategy to build cohesive, moderate, armed opposition institutions with a regional focus. The report, “From the Bottom, Up: A Strategy for U.S. Military Support to Syria’s Armed Opposition,” examines in-depth the current state of U.S. support for opposition groups in each region and makes a case for scaling up that support.

With the current state of the Syrian civil war, the conditions are not ripe for de-escalation in the conflict. If the United States is seeking a transition from the Assad regime that does not lead to the enduring rule of ideological extremist organizations throughout Syria, it will need to become the decisive influence that shifts the military balance on the ground in rebel-ruled areas in favor of the politically moderate armed opposition. Therefore, the primary U.S. effort should be on a bottom-up strategy for building cohesive, moderate armed opposition institutions with a regional focus that is tailored for each individual region within Syria. This line of effort depends on providing incentives for the already U.S.-vetted moderate armed opposition groups to join together into larger regional coalitions with genuinely unified command.
Over time, as these moderate rebel institutions become the center of gravity in their respective regions and marginalize or defeat ideological extremist organizations, they can be brought together to form larger civil-military structures and govern the predominately Sunni rebel– ruled areas inside of Syria. These regional structures can then interact with the remnants of the Assad regime and its loyalist forces to work toward achieving a long-term political solution to the Syrian civil war, such as a federalized Syria. While this approach may seem complex and difficult to execute, there are already examples inside Syria, especially in the south near the Jordanian border, where American strategy to support the armed opposition has had the most success. Indeed, it is the only approach to arming the Syrian opposition that has shown any success over the course of the civil war.
It is important to acknowledge that the complexity of the Syrian civil war will require this careful, phased approach that focuses on achieving its objectives over a time horizon that could be measured in up to a decade or more. This line of effort will also require sustained U.S. commitment to Syria, working through a “light footprint” approach with regional and local partners. The strategy’s overarching objective is to prevent the large areas of the country that are under opposition control, and largely irreconcilable with the state and security structures of the Assad regime, from becoming safe havens for transnational Salafist jihadist groups that target the West.

Download the full report.


Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 05/11/2016 - 11:26am

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Outlaw 09

Wed, 05/11/2016 - 3:47am

While the thesis of the article it totally correct it will never be implemented by Obama because of IRAN.....Obama has fully granted Iran regional hegemony over Iraq, Syria and to a degree even Yemen.....

Frederic Hof: Obama refuses to complicate Assad's ability to commit mass-homicide for the sake of the Iran Deal

May 9, 2016

Beating the Blob and Disentangling from Partners

By Frederic C. Hof

Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama's deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, is the subject of David Samuels' piece in the New York Times Magazine: “The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama's Foreign Policy Guru”. If Jeffrey Goldberg's March 2016 on the "Obama doctrine" was not a sufficient foreign policy Rosetta Stone to decode an administration absolutely without precedent, the Samuels piece supplies the missing hieroglyphs. The Oval Office, it seems, circumvented the "American foreign policy establishment" ("the Blob") to pursue a nuclear deal with Iran that "would create the space for America to disentangle itself from its established system of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey."

The Samuels piece is not a hatchet job. It is a very sympathetic portrayal of a highly intelligent, disciplined, dedicated, and loyal official: someone who has faithfully and accurately channeled, transmitted, and explained the foreign policy desires of Barack Obama. The attitude of the author toward the subject makes the substance all the more extraordinary.

For those who believe that the bungled occupation of Iraq in 2003 sums up the past, present, and future of American behavior and capabilities in the Middle East, this article is cause for celebratory confirmation. For those who think that disaster in Iraq had specific causes and effects of its own (centering on the absence of stabilization planning) not universally applicable to all things at all times, this article will annoy. Regardless of the reactions it inspires, David Samuels and his subject deserve credit for explaining to the reading public what in the world has been going on for the past several years.

In terms of the administration's public information rationale for that which it has done and failed to do in the Middle East, it really does all boil down to Iraq: a foreign policy catastrophe that, for Barack Obama and Ben Rhodes, sums up America abroad and typifies the handiwork of the American foreign policy establishment: "the Blob." Per Samuels, "According to Rhodes, the Blob includes Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and other Iraq war promoters from both parties who now whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order in Europe and the Middle East." One could substitute the name "Trump" for "Rhodes" in the foregoing sentence without changing the meaning. Given the nature of campaign 2016 to date, Rhodes' characterization of the presumptive Democratic Party candidate hardly quickens the pulse.

Indeed, the personal attacks do not matter. Leave aside the fact that neither Gates nor Clinton was on the ground floor of what passed for war planning in 2002 and 2003: the expectation of a splendid little campaign that would culminate with the capture of Baghdad; what one wit described at the time as "Grenada with Goats." Leave aside that the Obama-Rhodes notion of the "Blob" probably includes the serving vice president and secretary of state in addition to at least one other former defense secretary (Leon Panetta) who served the Obama administration with great distinction. What is key here is the seeming belief that "Iraq 2003" epitomizes the sum total of what America stands for and what it brings to the table in the Middle East.

There is nothing at all remarkable about 'John Q. Citizen' looking back on invasion, occupation, and insurgency in Iraq and saying, in effect, "Don't touch it with a ten-foot pole; let the natives have at it and sort it out on their own." It is something else, however, for an official channeling the president of the United States to say, "I profoundly do not believe that the United States could make things better in Syria by being there. And we have an evidentiary record of what happens when we're there—nearly a decade in Iraq." This is the official alibi for not having protected, over the course of five years, one single Syrian civilian from the murderous assaults of Bashar al-Assad.

Yet the official alibi lacks one critical ingredient: the truth. A "decade in Iraq" did not dissuade the Obama administration from protecting Syrian Kurds from a massacre by the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) in Kobani. Disaster in Iraq did not deter American military forces from protecting Yazidis in Iraq itself. The Iraqi fiasco has not stopped the Obama administration from establishing an anti-ISIS American military presence in both Iraq and Syria: yes, boots on the ground. No: the Rhodes-Obama fear and dismissal of making things better in Syria "by being there" applies only to those parts of Syria experiencing mass murder and massive displacement at the hands of Bashar al-Assad. Why? Iran.

For an American president and his principal subordinates to avert their gazes from mass homicide and from doing anything at all to mitigate or complicate it is far from unprecedented. In this day and age, however, knowing what we know about twentieth century failures to protect civilians thanks to the research and writings of Samantha Power and others, it is stunningly remarkable and regrettable. For a man of Barack Obama's evident humanity and values, surely there has been something of transcendent importance that has stayed his hand from protecting Syrian civilians; something of paramount national security significance that has stopped him from acting in support of American friends and allies trying desperately to deal with the hemorrhage of humanity from Syria. Thanks to Ben Rhodes and his chronicler we know now what it has been: pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Assad's premier long-term enabler and partner in mass murder: Iran.

The following passage from the Samuels piece clarifies why it was important for President Obama to protect no one in Syria, to risk his own reputation in the red-line climb down, and even to assure Iran's Supreme Leader in writing that the Ayatollah's murderous Syrian subordinate would not be touched by (anti-ISIS) American military intervention in Syria:

"By eliminating the fuss about Iran's nuclear program, the administration hoped to eliminate a source of structural tension between the two countries, which would create the space for America to disentangle itself from its established system of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey. With one bold move, the administration would effectively begin the process of large-scale disentanglement from the Middle East."

To complicate the ability of Iran's man in Syria to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity would have placed at risk nuclear negotiations aimed ultimately at dissolving American relationships of trust and confidence with key regional powers. Yes, the Blob—the foreign policy establishment—would have had a problem with this. Hence an information operation headed by Rhodes aimed at avoiding head-on debates with the Blob or, for that matter, the representatives of the American people in Congress.

Were it not for their enormous suffering, millions of Syrian civilians might find humor in the reason for their abandonment: a desire by the American president to disentangle the United States from long-term cooperative regional relationships. Were it not for the tens of thousands of rockets and missiles pointed at them by Iran's Lebanese militia, Israelis might enjoy the irony of it all. The only players in this drama who need neither humor nor irony to appreciate the importance and value of what is being undertaken are Iran and Russia.

President Obama and his assistant get high marks for, in the end, spelling it all out. They probably sincerely believe that Iraq 2003 sums up the wisdom and contribution of what they politely call "the foreign policy establishment." The view here is that their successors will need thoughtful (if fallible) and experienced (if imperfect) foreign policy practitioners—yes, the thoroughly disrespected "Blob"—to undo the damage they have done.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 05/11/2016 - 3:23am

Will simply not happen under this Obama WH....ask the FSA who has the only true chance to kick out IS and Assad as they are the local Syrians in the ground who have been fighting IS long before the Kurds started......not the Kurdish YPG/SF/PKK which the WH/CIA/CENTCOM seems determined to support.

Reference the Jordanian MOC..they have kept the Southern Front on an extremely short leash and is not allowing them to attack Assad...if they do they risk losing US support...figure that one out...US wants to keep Assad in the main cause of the current genocide in Syria.....AND who has been the main supporter of IS from the very beginning.

Just look at the US CAS support for FSA.....own from 52 strikes against IS to just barely 21.....inside three weeks and in the face of strong IS attacks against FSA which should have provided plenty of ground targets.

Some are saying the FSA is drifting already into the orbit of JaN because of the lack of Obama support....

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