Now that the U.S. elections are over, the Obama administration is applying a full-court press for a political solution in Syria. Finally.
But U.S. officials still refuse to openly engage with, or give military aid to, Syrian rebel commanders, who will exercise major influence after the fall of Bashar al-Assad. Instead, the Obama team has been outsourcing the role of aiding military rebels to Saudi Arabia and the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar, with the Saudis now taking the lead.
At a meeting last week in Antalya, Turkey, more than 300 commanders from the rebel Free Syrian Army agreed under pressure from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to form a unified command structure, in return for promises they would get more advanced weapons. Yet secular Syrian rebel officers told me during my recent trip to Turkey and Syria that Washington’s past reliance on the Gulf states has meant that most military aid has gone to Islamists.
Previous U.S. decisions to outsource the job of arming Muslim rebels to Gulf states also backfired. Qatar reportedly turned weapons over to Islamic militants during last year’s conflict in Libya, and the Saudis gave weapons to the worst militants in the Afghan war against the Soviets. In both cases, our outsourcing of responsibility harmed our own security interests.
So why are we making the same mistake in Syria?
One reason is President Obama’s extreme reluctance to get involved in another Mideast war, even if the U.S. role were confined to helping Syrians do the fighting. Instead, U.S. officials have insisted that the Syrian conflict can only be resolved politically. Apart from humanitarian aid, the United States has provided only nonlethal assistance to unarmed rebels. It has stuck to that position even as the real battle for Syria is being fought on the ground.
After two years of failed efforts to unify the Syrian political opposition, U.S. and European officials, along with Qatar, have now godfathered a new Syrian transitional leadership body. The United States is set to recognize the Syrian Opposition Council, or SOC, this week.
This is good news. If the SOC holds together, it can provide a channel through which to funnel desperately needed humanitarian aid to liberated areas of Syria. Such aid could in turn strengthen the hand of civilian leadership councils that have emerged in areas freed from Assad’s rule.
U.S. officials also hope this new council will exert civilian control over the rebel military forces and ultimately help negotiate the exit of Assad. But the military struggle is fast outpacing efforts to broker a political solution. As rebel fighters gain ground, they may have little time for the Cairo-based SOC or the wishes of U.S. officials who have given neither weapons nor money. They are more likely to listen to Gulf countries that provide both — and whose interests differ from ours.
Consider what has happened over the last two years. For months, opposition activists have urged the United States to vet and help secular opposition commanders, including high-level army defectors.
Instead, this task was outsourced, mainly to Qatar, which never managed to create a centralized military leadership structure. Money and weapons — some from Gulf states, some from wealthy religious Muslims — flowed directly to local commanders, many of them militant Islamists.
Militia leaders and individual fighters grew militant-style beards to get weapons. Mohammed Ghanem of the Syrian American Council recounted asking a fighter at a checkpoint near Aleppo why he was working with Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadi group connected with al-Qaeda. The man angrily retorted, “They are the ones with the guns.”
U.S. officials repeatedly refused to supply the ground-to-air weapons the rebels desperately needed to repel massive government bombing attacks on civilians, even when groups such as the SSG proposed detailed control systems. The administration feared such weapons might fall into the wrong hands. Now rebel commanders have overrun Syrian army bases and seized ground-to-air weapons on their own, leaving the United States with no say whatsoever on their use.
“People think the United States is not serious,” says Louay Sakka, a spokesman for the Syrian Support Group, which lobbies for the more moderate wing of the Free Syrian Army. “Nonlethal aid will not remove Assad from political power. A political solution will not work without a military part.”
Now the Saudis are taking the lead in setting up a central Free Syrian Army command system intended to coordinate the flow of arms and funds to rebel fighters. The system will supposedly exclude groups with al-Qaida ties, such as Jabhat al-Nusra.
Perhaps the Saudis (and Qataris) will favor professional rebel officers, regardless of whether they have beards. Perhaps not. History gives reason for concern. Meanwhile, the United States, which reportedly had a small CIA presence at the meeting in Turkey, remains in the background.
“If you don’t want others to have influence, you have to fill the void,” says Amr Al Azm, a Syrian activist and history professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio. “You can own the thing or let someone else own it.”
When it comes to shaping the military outcome in Syria, which will affect our interests throughout the Mideast, do we really want the Saudis to own it? Can we really afford to lead from behind?