Not saying that it will happen — not even that it might. But if you don’t watch the confluence of events in Syria, you’ll miss the possibility that it could.
Now that Washington is finished with last summer’s Elizabeth O’Bagy kerfuffle over the percentage of the Syrian opposition comprising jihadist militias, it is time to admit that the war is not what the romantics wanted it to be — doctors and teachers who rose up against the tyrant and won. To be sure, there were doctors and teachers, and to be sure, Assad is a tyrant, but war is conducted by fighters — and in Syria, the fighters are well-armed, well-trained, and forcing the hand of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Reports of local FSA commanders and local Syrian government commanders making ceasefire deals in the field could be false. But they could also be harbingers of changing fates.
The FSA is being subsumed under and pounded by jihadists. There are reports that hundreds of FSA fighters have been defecting to jihadist groups since the summer, with the numbers growing. It is a tactical and political win for the Syrian government, which presents itself as the sole secular fighting force against an encroaching jihadist onslaught.
The FSA has to ponder its position and its options.
The Syrian opposition in the broadest sense was armed by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. The U.S. role was not overt, but arms shipments from post-Gaddafi Libya to Syria from Benghazi were well-known and well-documented. The role of the CIA in “vetting” rebel groups was also known. In terms of direct support, Qatar and Turkey were partial to the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia partial to other jihadist groups and — as a U.S. ally — partial to the American-supported FSA. (That may now change, as the Saudis expressed their clear unhappiness with U.S. policy in Syria.) Al-Qaeda used the generally unguarded Iraqi border to move arms and fighters west, as it had previously used it to move east.
From the beginning, it was clear that while the FSA leadership included defectors from the Syrian Army, the majority of its fighting forces were Muslim Brotherhood-aligned. It didn’t matter much when the fight against Assad trumped the other differences. But that didn’t last, and neither did the primacy of the FSA. In July, the Brotherhood openly called for international arms to go through the FSA for Brotherhood use.
The jihadists are mainly foreign to Syria. Where they control territory, they have imposed sharia law in ways that are alien to the community and that the locals resent and abhor. The jihadists are often more interested in ruling what territory they control than capturing Damascus — which makes sense, as the city means nothing to them. Syria as a country means nothing to them. Their goal, as it was in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, and elsewhere, is the spread of Islamic law across borders. In instability, chaos, and ungoverned spaces, al-Qaeda and similar groups live, train, import weapons, export fighters, and thrive.
Iraq is their model. After the fall of Saddam, al-Qaeda established Islamic State of Iraq, which ran roughshod over the traditions and alliances of the local Sunni leadership. When local Iraqis were ready to take them on, the U.S. military was there to help. In Syria, the locals are on their own against a foreign surge that is, for all practical purposes, unlimited.
To that extent, Assad (and al-Sissi in Egypt) is quite right in saying, “Après moi, le déluge.”
It was never reasonable to believe that the FSA could fight off Assad’s army, and even less to believe that it could fight Assad and the radicals at the same time. Likewise, for three reasons it was naïve in the extreme to believe that if the U.S. had “armed and trained” the rebels, they could have taken Assad and given America influence for the “post-war” period. First, the U.S. military — openly, with American commanders, American equipment, eight years, and millions of dollars — couldn’t train an Iraqi or an Afghan military that fights competently. Second, in neither place did U.S. training and arms translate into political capital. And finally, al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and various other jihadist organizations were already armed and already trained — some having fought in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
So the FSA, losing fighters on the ground to jihadist militias, and now in peril of losing Saudi arms and money, is at a crossroads. Its leadership is secular, nationalist, and — most important — Syrian. Most rebel militia leaders are none of those things. The Assad government is all of them.
The opposition also has to consider the relative strength of Bashar Assad. Assad started with a base of support that cannot switch sides; more than one-third of the Syrian population is Kurdish, Christian, or members of other minority groups that rely on the secular, nationalist Assad government to protect them. The FSA’s hopes that the U.S. would enter the battle have been dashed, and any hope that Israel would do so was never realistic. Today, Assad is a partner to the U.S.-Russian agreement on OPCW and the removal of the chemical weapons arsenal; it was a small price for Assad to pay to ensure that the U.S. wouldn’t attack militarily. Russia again supplies the government with arms openly. And Israel’s “red lines,” while effectively maintained, have not helped the rebels at all.
The FSA is literally between the rubble and mass graves, and the choices are stark: to continue fighting both Assad and the jihadist militias while watching its fighters defect and its people suffer ever more death and destruction, or to admit defeat by Assad and negotiate a new arrangement to try to oust the jihadists. It will be an enormous victory for Iran, Russia, and Assad, and a corresponding loss for the Saudis (and other Sunni interests) and, of course, the Syrian people. But it cannot be unthinkable.
You think they can’t? You think they won’t? You may be right.