Things Are Going From Bad to Worse in Syria—And Iraq


After reading my post yesterday about the weakness of our anti-ISIS strategy in Iraq, a friend emailed this: “It’s also worth mentioning that our non-plan in Syria, the Free Syrian Army, is disintegrating by the minute.” Here’s the story he linked to:

The Obama administration’s Syria strategy suffered a major setback Sunday after fighters linked to al-Qaeda routed U.S.-backed rebels from their main northern strongholds, capturing significant quantities of weaponry, triggering widespread defections and ending hopes that Washington will readily find Syrian partners in its war against the Islamic State.

Moderate rebels who had been armed and trained by the United States either surrendered or defected to the extremists as the Jabhat al-Nusra group, affiliated with al-Qaeda, swept through the towns and villages the moderates controlled in the northern province of Idlib, in what appeared to be a concerted push to vanquish the moderate Free Syrian Army, according to rebel commanders, activists and analysts.

Zack Beauchamp is about as pessimistic as it’s possible to be:

These groups were supposed to be the great hope of America’s strategy in Syria. That they were defeated so roundly and so soon after the US began implementing its new anti-ISIS strategy is proof positive of a wider truth: America’s strategy for Syria has already fallen apart. Despite a spate of ISIS setbacks in recent months, America’s effort to defeat ISIS in Syria appears to be making negative progress.

Beauchamp thinks our core problem is the same as always: We just flatly don’t have any good alternatives in Syria.

The core of America’s strategy — to build a coalition of moderate Syrian rebels to combat ISIS — is in really bad shape. Part of what makes that so discouraging is that the alternative options are terrible.

Simply bombing ISIS, and not seeking out a ground ally in Syria, would be folly.

…Some observers in the US have suggested allying with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad against ISIS. It’s more than possible that Obama will choose this: Assad has clearly signaled he’s open to American support. But it’d be a strategic and moral disaster….The only other ground presence in Syria that the US could side with is Jabhat al-Nusra, which is already essentially at war with ISIS. But al-Qaeda’s Syria branch is, if anything, more of a threat to the United States than ISIS is. No matter who wins that fight, the US loses.

A third option is to simply give up on trying to root ISIS out of Syria, instead focusing on defeating the group in Iraq….This might actually work at achieving its relatively narrower aims….But as long as ISIS can safely retreat to its Syrian territory, it’ll be very hard to beat them in Iraq….Moreover, it would mean admitting that Obama’s strategy will not succeed in defeating ISIS. It would mean leaving Syrian civilians at ISIS’s mercy. And it would allow the group a base from which to threaten the United States.

I don’t know if things are as dire in Syria as Beauchamp suggests, but they’re pretty damn close. The hawkish advice to “arm the rebels” has, from the start, been more a calculated sound bite than an actual, workable strategy, since it’s all but impossible to arm and train only the right rebels. But it sounds good if you don’t think about it too hard, and it serves the purposes of camera-hungry pols like John McCain who want to sound tough without being forced to acknowledge the real costs of intervention in a messy civil war that we know next to nothing about. The bottom line is that arming the Syrian rebels was simply never a workable plan.

But if there’s no workable plan in Syria, then ISIS becomes doubly hard to defeat in Iraq. We can bomb their supply lines and their retreats back in Syria, but even a bombing campaign ten times the size of the current one would have a hard time making much of a dent in their operations. It’s just too big a territory to control from the air.

Bottom line: this is nearly an impossible nut to crack without a large and reliable ground force working alongside us. Even then it would be no piece of cake. At this point, then, we need to either (a) get out, (b) commit to a large re-invasion of Iraq, or (c) come up with a truly credible plan for rebuilding the Iraqi army and brokering a genuine political reconciliation between the country’s warring factions. Right now, we’re betting on (c) because no one wants to face up to the shitstorm the other two would provoke. But we may not be able to deny reality for very much longer.