President Obama will join a meeting of top defense officials from 21 countries Tuesday to discuss the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Missing from the confab: anyone that’s actually from Syria.
The U.S. government has no near-term plans to include the Free Syrian Army or any other moderate rebel group in the military mission to fight ISIS. None of these opposition figures were even invited to the anti-ISIS coalition meeting being held at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington and chaired by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. U.S. defense officials told The Daily Beast the Syrian rebel groups are simply not partners in the airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which have been failing to stop the Islamic State’s advances both in northern Syria and western Iraq.
“We’ve said this is an Iraq-first strategy,” Col. Edward Thomas, spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Daily Beast. “We have not yet moved to the stage in Syria where we would work with partners on the ground.”
Top administration officials have repeatedly acknowledged that airstrikes will not be enough to accomplish President Obama’s stated goal to degrade and destroy ISIS. But a month after the U.S. and its partners began bombing inside of Syria, there is still no military coordination with the rebels fighting ISIS on the ground—and no plans to do so.
The U.S. strategy is to train and equip a new rebel army slowly in bases in Saudi Arabia and possibly Turkey, but not to work with the Free Syrian Army structure as it exists now.
“Some of [the FSA] elements may be brought into a credible force in the future, but we’re not there yet,” Thomas said.
Being excluded from Tuesday’s coalition meeting is only the latest clear signal to the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the FSA from the Obama administration that they don’t see these groups as a credible or trusted partner in the fight against ISIS.
Before the airstrikes began, the Obama administration was promising to work with the opposition groups. Gen. Bashir, the chief of staff of the Supreme Military Command, came to Washington in May with Syrian Opposition Coalition leadership and met with top officials. But now those leaders are being marginalized.
The moderate Syrian opposition was not part of the decision to strike inside Syria and they say the lack of coordination led to an incident last month when the U.S. almost bombed an FSA base near Idlib. The CIA maintains discreet relationships with a few opposition fighting groups but has not increased the weapons flows to these brigades since the U.S. led war against ISIS inside Syria began.
Multiple Syrian opposition leaders told The Daily Beast that FSA brigades in northern and eastern Syria, who have been fighting and losing to ISIS all year, have been trying to feed targeting intelligence and other useful information to the U.S. military but they have not gotten any response and they claim the airstrikes have been undermined because ISIS has been able to avoid taking any real damage.
“If the Supreme Military Council and the Free Syrian Army are not involved in the upcoming meeting in Washington regarding eliminating ISIS, then we are excluding our ground troops and commanders that have real-time intelligence and expertise in fighting ISIS and thus undermining the entire strategy to defeat ISIS,” said Mouaz Moustafa, an official with the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, an umbrella group of Syrian-American NGOs.
U.S. military officials said that the FSA is simply not up to the task. Thomas noted that the Tuesday coalition meeting was focused on defense ministers from countries. The SOC and the SMC have some connections to fighting groups on the ground, but don’t operate as a real military command structure and don’t have direct influence on all the fighters carrying the FSA banner. What’s more, the “moderates” often wind up in alliances of convenience with hard-core Islamists. One of the reason the FSA base in Idlib was almost bombed? It was right next to an outpost belonging to al Nusra, Syria’s affiliate of al Qaeda.
“The ground forces that matter the most are indigenous ground forces. And we don’t have a willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria right now. It’s just a fact. I can’t change that,” Pentagon spokesman Adm. John Kirby said last week. “That’s why we’re so eager to get the training and equip program up and running with our partners, Saudi Arabia now being willing to host the site, and that’s going to take some time.”
Officials and experts acknowledge that the plan to train and equip a new rebel army from scratch will take years. Without direct coordination with the FSA, there’s no real hope that ISIS will soon be driven from its safe havens inside Syria, where it maintains control over cities, oil refineries, and large swaths of land spanning from the Iraqi border to the northern Kurdish areas near Turkey, including around the besieged city of Kobani. And even with FSA help, the task would be by no means certain.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen [in Kobani] because again in the absence of any ground force there, it is going to be difficult just through air power to prevent [ISIS] from potentially taking over the town,” Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said over the weekend.
The FSA contributed to its own marginalization by failing to make the tough decisions to consolidate under a unified military and civilian leadership that the international community can work with, said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“They are basically telling the FSA that they are not part of their plans and they are going to start from scratch,” he said. “So for at least a year we’re going to have ISIS in those areas or we are going to have the regime take over the areas that ISIS is pushed out of. The U.S. government does not trust the Free Syrian Army much at all, that’s pretty clear.”