President Obama has reversed course, and is finally promising to openly arm the moderate Syrian opposition. But he wants the rebels to use those weapons to fight only ISIS, not the Bashar al-Assad regime. The Syrian rebels plan to use them to fight both at the same time.
For the Free Syrian Army, the loose conglomeration of opposition fighters that are not extremists and not aligned with the Assad regime, the war against ISIS began long before President Obama’s prime time speech Wednesday night. They have been battling ISIS for a year and fighting the Assad regime for over three years. For all that time, they have been begging the United States to send them weapons, but the CIA program to arm them has been extremely limited. They are getting beaten on both fronts, badly.
“Because of our failure [the rebels] have been so badly harmed and so many killed,” said Sen. John McCain, a longtime advocate for intervening in the Syrian conflict. “The blood is on their hands, the responsibility for the casualties that they have suffered unnecessarily, the responsibility lies with the president.”
In the administration’s haste to now throw military support behind the rebels, they are now committing to fighting alongside a force that is fighting Assad, possibly drawing the U.S. directly into the Syrian civil war.
After two years of rejecting calls from his own national security team to arm the FSA, President Obama announced Wednesday night that he now wanted to arm the FSA to fight against the terrorists who are on the march in Syria and Iraq. He said the only way to beat ISIS was to train and equip the moderate rebels—the same rebels he ignored for so long—and he called on Congress to authorize the mission.
“In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people; a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost,” Obama said, using an alternate acronym for ISIS. “Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria's crisis once and for all.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday that Obama wanted to wage war only against ISIS, not the regime in Damascus. After all, Syria is still technically a sovereign U.N. member state and the U.S. thinks the regime will be needed to negotiate the political solution to the civil war Obama mentioned.
“What the president is focused on right now, and the authorization that he feels he has under the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force, is to take the steps that are necessary to prevent ISIL from establishing a safe haven in Syria, and succeed in degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL,” he said.
But the Syrian opposition and the Free Syrian Army aren’t waiting for legal authorization to fight the Damascus regime; they are getting bombarded by Assad’s Syrian Arab Army every day, as it continues to commit mass murder of Syrian civilians through the siege of major cities, the dropping of barrel bombs, and the continued use of chlorine gas to kill innocents, according to international monitors.
“The fight against ISIS is one part of a multi-front war in Syria. The brutal rule and poor governance of the Assad regime generated the conditions for ISIS become the global threat that it is today,” Syrian National Coalition President Hadi AlBahra told The Daily Beast on Thursday.
He added, “Airstrikes on ISIS strongholds in Syria are a much-needed element to degrade the extremist group’s capabilities. To be effective, strikes must be accompanied by well-equipped and trained military forces on the ground. We therefore welcome the commitment to intensify the train-and-equip program to enable the Free Syrian Army to eradicate ISIS and other forms of terror in Syria, including the Assad regime.”
There is a contingent of senior officials both inside the White House and inside the intelligence community that believe the Assad regime must be preserved in order to prevent Syria and the region from falling into greater chaos.
Oubai Shahbandar, senior advisor to the Syrian Opposition Coalition, told The Daily Beast that it’s unrealistic to ask the moderate rebels to use U.S. weapons against ISIS but not against Assad. In major battles like in Aleppo, ISIS and Assad are working together. So you can’t fight one without fighting the other, Shahbandar added. (It’s a point of view backed by many senior State Department and Pentagon officials, who agree with the FSA that Assad is the magnet for the terrorists and that Assad's continued rule only perpetuates the ISIS problem.)
Although they sometimes clash, the Assad regime has mostly avoided fighting ISIS, letting them battle the other opposition groups unfettered. ISIS also sells oil from its vast oil fields in northern and eastern Syria directly to the Assad regime for cash. These transactions have continued, even as ISIS has begun to attack government sites, like the Taqba air base.
“ISIS and Assad are two sides of the same coin. We are going to defend the Syrian people both from the atrocities of the Assad regime and from the atrocities of ISIS. It’s a package deal,” Shahbandar said. “In order to deal with ISIS you have to deal with the root cause. From the opposition’s perspective it’s all the same effort. It’s the same campaign. It’s interlinked.”
For President Obama, the war against ISIS and the war against Assad are very different. In 2012, Obama refused to arm the FSA to fight Assad despite urging from several of his top officials, including Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, Martin Dempsey, and David Petraeus.
He told The New York Times last month that the whole idea that arming the moderate rebels would have helped them defeat the Assad regime was a “fantasy.” Obama's top intelligence advisers told him recently that partnering with the FSA against ISIS was too big a risk to take.
In a private meeting with lawmakers this summer, the president called criticism of his refusal to arm the moderate rebels “horseshit.”
But on Thursday, Earnest repeated an assertion made by former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on CNN that the White House didn’t arm the rebels in 2012 because they were not as effective as they are now. (“Because of the support that we've already provided to the Syrian opposition over the last year—that support has taken both military and non-military forms the capacity of the Syrian opposition is—is bigger, is broader, is stronger,” Earnest said.) Carney got into an argument about that assertion on air Wednesday night with Sen. John McCain, who said that the rebels are actually much worse off after years of getting pounded by both ISIS and Assad.
“It’s unbelievable. They’ve been decimated. And for [the White House] to say they are stronger and more viable is an outright lie that is beyond anything I have encountered with any president. I’m not kidding,” McCain told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “They can still be restored, but they have been harmed very seriously harmed by both ISIS and Assad and that has really reduced their size and capability.”
Both Syrian opposition leaders and U.S. lawmakers said Thursday they were skeptical that Obama’s new zeal for arming the rebels would be followed by a real effort to arm the rebels in a way that could change the momentum on the battlefield. Several times before the Obama administration has said it was increasing aid to the rebels without delivering.
“They are very skeptical because they have heard this on numerous occasions in the past,” McCain said. “I’m also suspicious of their commitment. I wonder if he’s really giving it lip service or if he’s going to really get behind it.”