Only three days ago, President Barack Obama’s envoy to the Syrian rebels, retired Marine Gen. John Allen, explained confidently that the U.S. would help to train and equip Western-backed fighters to become a credible force that would compel the Assad regime to negotiate a political deal and end the four-year-long civil war.
Yeah. Right. The Obama administration’s plans have little or nothing to do with what is unfolding all too rapidly on the ground: Rebel brigades are demoralized, disintegrating, and fighting among themselves.
The Americans and their allies are carrying out a desultory air campaign in Syria that appears focused on support for the Kurds. Meanwhile, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces maintain a withering air offensive of their own on rebels and civilians alike in northern Syria.
Last week in a 36-hour period, Assad’s air force launched 210 airstrikes, according to generally reliable opposition activists. That’s more than the entire American-led coalition has mounted in both Iraq and Syria since Sept. 22.
Brigades of secular fighters and relatively moderate Islamists are nearly encircled and their supply lines are threatened in the country’s second largest city, Aleppo. Assad’s forces in the northern Syrian city of Idlib, meanwhile, are moving from defense to offense. On Monday, they recaptured the governor’s mansion and police headquarters.
The rebels are squabbling among themselves as suspicions rage about American designs and intentions.
Clashes erupted this week between Islamist brigades aligned with the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra after the jihadists seized seven towns and villages in the Idlib countryside they previously controlled. And while U.S. officials may not shed a tear over the infighting between Islamists and jihadists—they have long urged rebel factions to distance themselves from the al Qaeda group—the infighting raises the risks that al Nusra may develop a rapprochement with rival ISIS militants, making it harder to “degrade and ultimately defeat” that group as Obama says he intends to do.
Al Nusra and ISIS, both spinoffs of al Qaeda, have been at war with each other since al Qaeda’s top leadership disavowed ISIS early this year. But there have been a series of meetings between al Nusra commanders and the leaders of other rebel groups to iron out differences, according to Abdul Rahman, a commander in the 3,000-strong Jaysh al-Mujahedeen or Army of Mujahedeen, an Islamist-leaning brigade that emerged from the villages and towns of the Aleppo countryside. “Al Nusra is particularly suspicious of the rebel brigades favored by the Americans who are getting weapons from Washington,” he says.
That includes the mainly secular Harakat Hazm (The Steadfast Movement), which has received TOW anti-tank missiles from the Obama administration. According to a senior State Department official, who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity, it is the FSA-aligned militia most trusted by Washington.
Infighting has been a persistent problem in the FSA. In 2012 and 2013, jihadist groups emerged in northern Syria not least because their discipline attracted defections from both FSA and Islamist brigades.
In the absence of any over-arching rebel military leadership, there is no one to referee disputes before they get out of hand. The Supreme Military Command (SMC), which on paper is meant to oversee the FSA-aligned militias, is anything but supreme and rebel commanders on the ground ignore its orders.
Despite strenuous efforts by Washington and the Gulf States to try to boost the authority of the SMC, nothing has worked, much to the frustration of U.S. officials tasked with funneling aid and arms to more than 16 FSA-aligned brigades.
“We ignore the SMC,” a senior State Department official told The Daily Beast. “We would like to see a stronger SMC and a proper command structure. One that can act as a middleman on supplies so we don’t have to deal with commanders directly, which would help us to avoid being drawn into arguments.” But no such entity exists, so U.S. officials are inundated by grievances from rebel commanders, who complain this or that militia is getting more than they are.
The absence of command and control means there is only haphazard combat coordination on the ground. “There are hard-pressed commanders who are desperately in need of support and reinforcements and they can’t wait, but they don’t get help,” says the exasperated State Department official. “It’s the rebels’ job to fix this and to come to each other’s assistance promptly.”
While conceding their failure over the four-year-long civil war to fashion a coherent force, rebel commanders counter that U.S. neglect and Washington’s refusal to arm them with advanced weaponry deprived them of the leverage to discipline fighters and to keep them loyal and to halt defections to jihadist groups.
“Look,” said a commander with the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, “we don’t have shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles, but the Islamic State does, thanks to the Iraqi army leaving them to be looted by the jihadists.”
Either way—rebel squabbling or U.S. neglect—the rebels the Obama administration wants to build up to be credible enough to force the Assad regime to the negotiating table look less convincing with each passing day.