Obama weaves a Syrian fantasy

The New York Times homes in on a concern I expressed with President Obama’s plan to use “moderate” Syrian rebels as his foot soldiers in the campaign against ISIS in Syria — namely, that these rebels are at war with the Assad regime, not ISIS.

Since pushing ISIS from parts of northern Syria early this year, Syria’s rebels have few military advances to point to and in many areas have lost ground, to Mr. Assad’s forces and to ISIS. But in many places they remain busy fighting Mr. Assad and are not eager to redirect their energies to ISIS — even while many say they hate the group.

The forces associated with the Free Syrian Army took up arms to oust Assad. It requires plenty of nerve for Obama to ask these forces to change their mission just because, after all this time, he has finally decided to take ISIS (and the Free Syrian Army) seriously.

Obama’s reliance on the Free Syrian Army looks even more implausible when we examine the current situation on the ground (see, for example, the map that accompanies the Times article). Generally speaking, the FSA is not in close proximity with the main body of IRIS forces. The latter are mostly in the east, in their “caliphate” towards Iraq. The former are concentrated in or near Aleppo in the west, and further towards the Mediterranean coast.

Does Obama expect the FSA to pull up stakes and head east to take on ISIS where it is concentrated? If not, how will ISIS be “degraded and destroyed,” given the broad consensus that air attacks alone will not suffice?

The FSA’s focus on fighting Assad is not the only weakness in Obama’s plan for taking on ISIS in Syria. As the Times points out, the FSA has, out of necessity, fought side-by-side with the fourth major player in the Syrian civil war (there hundreds of minor players) — the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda’s affiliate.

If the FSA is going to head east to fight ISIS, its need to work with the Nusra Front will become even more acute. The FSA cannot fight ISIS in the east and Assad in the west without the help of other rebel forces including some that are quite extreme. And the FSA certainly cannot afford to alienate the Nusra Front, lest it end up fighting all three major forces in Syria.

Is it okay with Obama if the FSA keeps working with al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria?

The other problem is the free movement of particular rebels and rebel forces from one group to another. In recent years, most of the movement has been out of the FSA which, in the absence of serious U.S. help, has come to be perceived as the “weak horse.”

If the U.S. provides substantial aid plus air support, the perception may begin to change. Even so, we cannot be confident that substantial amounts of the arms and equipment we supply the FSA will not end up in the hands of the Nusra Front, or even ISIS.

If, years ago, Obama had provided substantial assistance and air support to the FSA to help it fight Assad when he was on the ropes, the FSA might well have become the preeminent rebel force. Conceivably, it would driven Assad from power (or at least to the negotiating table), and might now be working with portions of Assad’s forces that turned against him to take on more radical elements within the rebellion.

Is this a fantasy, to use Obama’s word? Possibly. But it seems more realistic than Obama’s alleged strategy of having the FSA, besieged as it now is, divert attention from Assad and take on an ISIS army that has become preeminent in eastern Syria.

What would Obama do if he were serious about degrading and destroying ISIS in Syria? He would have U.S. ground forces significantly involved in the effort.

But Obama is not serious. In fact, he rejected the advice of his top military commander in the Middle East to use a modest number of special forces to fight ISIS in Iraq. Clearly, he was never going to authorize ground troops for Syria.

Hence the absurdly optimistic reliance on the FSA.