The Syrian Paradox
Several people I know who have been in Syria since the outbreak of fighting in 2011, and have dealt with the rebels there (including ISIS), tell me that a pivotal moment in the civil war took place in the summer of 2012. As a result of decisions US policy-makers made then, we face the current lesser-of-two-evils choice — with ISIS on one side pitted against the Assad regime on the other.
When anti-Assad demonstrations started in early 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, most international observers gave Syrian protestors little chance of uprooting the regime, which had been in power since President Bashar al-Assad’s father assumed the presidency in 1970. But the frustration of the large Sunni Muslim majority that had been oppressed by the small Alawite Shiite elite for many years was stronger and deeper than expected. And protestors continued to press for political and economic reforms and the end of the state of emergency that had been in place since 1963.
The Assad regime responded with customary brutality, torturing and killing protest organizers, and in some instances opening fire on civilian demonstrations. Small groups of protestors started to take up arms. During the summer of 2011, these rebels were joined by thousands of defectors from the Syrian military and formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Its composition was primarily Sunni Muslim and its stated goal was to “bring down the regime.”
Throughout late 2011 and early 2012 as its ranks swelled to 20,000 fighters, the FSA seized territory, especially in the northern largely Sunni al-Raqua Province, and the Assad military responded by destroying entire neighborhoods and towns with cluster bomb, artillery, and rocket attacks. Civilians fled by the thousands to the borders of Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. And other Sunni governments in the area started to take notice and support the rebels with arms and money.
Despite their initial gains, FSA units remained badly organized and trained and poorly supplied. One friend who was in Syria in early 2012 working with the FSA on behalf of the US government told me that he encountered groups of disorganized teenagers facing well-armed and disciplined Assad military units. In battle after battle, he saw the rebels overwhelmed and slaughtered as they tried to defend towns and communities around the city of Aleppo. He called it heartbreaking.
When this individual returned to Syria a few months later, he discovered evidence that the Assad regime was using phosphorous bombs and other chemical weapons against civilians. For the first time, he also saw the presence of better-trained and equipped Al Nusra Front units, which were made up of foreign Sunni jihadists and allied with al-Qaeda.
During this same period, spring 2012, another former US official I spoke to was trying to organize an international response to the widening civil war. The Obama Administration didn’t want to spend any political capital to try to get Congress to grant direct aid to the Syrian rebels. So US officials traveled to capitals in Europe and the Persian Gulf trying to fashion a coalition reaction that could include training and arming the SFA and the establishment of a no-fly zone over Syria. These US officials found it almost impossible to get our international partners to agree. Conservative Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar were already sending arms and support to some rebels groups, and saw the conflict in Syria very differently from our Europeans allies. Absent strong US leadership and decisive US action, the effort to develop an international coalition supporting some kind of direct involvement in the civil war fell apart.
While these talks continued into the summer of 2012, the situation on the ground in Syria grew increasingly desperate. Human rights abuses skyrocketed. Fearing that the Assad regime was about to topple, the Shiite government of Iran bolstered their support of Assad with military equipment and combat troops. And, jihadists from nearby Arab states saw an opportunity.
As foreign fighters continued to stream into Syria, the SFA found itself in conflict with other armed with different goals. The most troubling of these was the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), which had gained a foothold in the Sunni triangle of Iraq, and whose goal was to establish an Islamic caliphate throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa.
According to several people I spoke to, a turning point in the civil war came in August 2012 when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Istanbul and meet with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to discuss ways to assist the Syria rebels. Following the meeting, Secretary Clinton told reporters, “Our intelligences services, our military have very important responsibilities and roles to play to we are going to be setting up a working group to do exactly that.” She and the Turkish foreign minister suggested that one of the options that should be considered was to impose a no-fly zone over rebel-held territory. Although Secretary Clinton wasn’t suggesting that intervention was imminent, it was the closest the US had come so far to talking about direct military action in Syria.
According to a friend who was working with the SFA at the time, the rebels who were being pummeled at the time by Assad airforce cluster-bomb attacks, were elated by the news of a possible no-fly zone. They expected the US to start sending planes any day. When the planes and support didn’t arrive, their spirits quickly deflated, and they stopped believing that the US would deliver much needed support.
A large number of SFA fighters started to switch alliances to better-funded and supplied rebel groups like the Al Nusra Front and ISIS. Acceptance into Al Nusra required a personal recommendation from someone in the organization and other requirements. ISIS, on the other hand, took any Muslim who pledged allegiance to their cause. They also had better weapons from captured US caches left behind in Iraq. And, they had they own sources of funding from the sale of petroleum from seized oil fields in Iraq and Syria.
Today ISIS is the dominant rebel force in Syria, controlling large swathes of land throughout the east and north and half of that country’s oil assets, according to CNN. Beginning in September 2014, the US and its allies have launched hundreds of airstrikes against ISIS fighters in Syria, in effect bolstering the Assad regime, which President Obama said in 2011 had lost its legitimacy. Perhaps we wouldn’t be facing this paradox today if had we acted in the summer of 2012.
Ralph Pezzullo writes the SEAL Team 6 series of action thrillers with retired Team 6 member Don Mann. The newest book in the series, Hunt the Fox, takes place in Syria as the team attempts to contain a chemical weapon that falls into the wrong hands.