Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Big Problems for America's War in Syria

Smoke rises after an U.S.-led air strike in the Syrian town of Kobani Ocotber 10, 2014. REUTERS-Umit Bektas
U.S. air strike in Kobane. Credit: REUTERS/Umit Bektas

The Obama administration has placed a big bet on the so-called  military moderates in Syria, the FSA. It's these folks that team Obama sees as doing quite a bit of the heavy lifting in containing, if not thwarting, ISIS. In brief, here's BO's plan: The U.S. and Sunni countries have launched air strikes on ISIS positions (including captured oil refineries) and personnel to weaken ISIS's expansion; at the same time, the U.S. and its allies are shipping arms and engaging in military training to strengthen the FSA to the point that it can better deal with a weakened, degraded ISIS. The FSA is, in short, supposed to be the anti-ISIS coalition's "boots on the ground." This has been portrayed as a good thing by Team Obama, suggesting that this plan will save the U.S. the burden of putting combat forces into battle.

Time for a reality-check: Is this really a good thing? Here are some things to think about.

1. The military power of the FSA has been badly degraded by ISIS and pro-Assad forces over the last few years. As a result, the FSA is in an even worse position now than it was when Obama originally debated arming the group over a year ago. Put simply, the asymmetries in power between the FSA and its opponents has significantly widened.

2. The moderates likely aren't so moderate. Reports say that the moderates have been switching sides, taking their arms with them as they defect. And when they're not switching sides, they're working with them, as in the case of the FSA and al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's branch in Syria. Never more was this evident than when the U.S. almost bombed a FSA building, precisely because of its proximity to a Nusra location--which reflects a closeness between both sides that the U.S. didn't expect to find.

3. The moderates aren't unified and cohesive, a problem that has plagued them for years. The FSA is an umbrella group of militias and rebels, each of whom have their own interests and agendas. Some of these interests and agendas align with those of the U.S., some don't at all.

4. Al-Nusra and ISIS seem to be America's primary targets, with a heavy emphasis placed on knocking out the latter. But bombing the so-called Khorasan group, a cell of AQ operatives within Nusra, has caused an uproar among some in the FSA who see Nusra as an ally in the fight against ISIS. This uproar has caused further divisions within the FSA, with some supporting the air strikes and some harshly critical and against them. These are our America's allies?

So what does all of this mean? In short, Obama's bet on the moderates is an extraordinarily bad one. The moderates have accomplished little militarily. The air strikes have helped, but only to a small degree. And ISIS is still on the move, showing no sign of slowing down.

All might not be lost if, perhaps, Team Obama has other cards up its sleeve. Alas, it likely doesn't.

Sensibly, the U.S. wants Turkey to get involved in the fight against ISIS, but one part of that requires Turkey to strengthen the fighting capabilities of the Kurds, something turkey is reluctant to do, despite the internal pressure from protesters and rioters to do so. At this point, because of its own Kurdish troubles, Turkey sees an empowered Kurdish population in Syria as a graver threat than a rampaging, malignant ISIS, which is both alarming and horrific. Indeed, right now, Turkish selfishness is abetting the fall of Kobane to ISIS, which puts hundreds of Kurds, if not more, who are outgunned and outmanned, directly in harm's way.

To get Turkey on board, it wants the U.S., along with its allies, to set up a no-fly zone in Syria. But this, too, is fraught with problems. It means that the U.S. would have to make a greater investment in the war, in terms of manpower and expense, which runs counter to team Obama's plan for a "limited war" and could possibly pave the way for another prolonged American war in the Middle East. The other wrinkle here is that setting up a no-fly zone would necessitate the U.S. either to take out Syrian air defenses or to coordinate with Assad. For now, both options are a no-go for Team Obama.

Furthermore, it also doesn't help that there's little communication between the FSA and the American military, which means the latter doesn't have the requisite eyes and ears to know where enemy targets are. The U.S. military is firing blindly. Of course, this ups the chances of killing innocent civilians, which only leads to bad things--such as turning them off to the war, angering them, and even possibly radicalizing them.

America and its allies' "excellent adventure" in Syria is a giant mess.

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