new coalition of US-based organizations is pushing for a
more aggressive U.S. intervention against the Assad
regime. But both the war in Syria and politics in the
United States have shifted dramatically against this
When it was
formed last July, the coalition hoped that a Hillary
Clinton administration would pick up its proposals for a
more forward stance in support of the anti-Assad armed
groups. But with Donald Trump in office instead, the
supporters of a U.S. war in Syria now have little or no
chance of selling the idea.
One of the ways
the group is adjusting to the new political reality is
to package its proposal for deeper U.S. military
engagement on behalf of U.S.-supported armed groups as
part of a plan to counter Al Qaeda, now calling itself
Jabhat Fateh al Sham.
rationale depends on a highly distorted presentation of
the problematic relations between Syria’s supposedly
“moderate” rebel groups and Al Qaeda’s Syrian offshoot.
Group” also includes Charles Lister of the Middle
East Institute and Jennifer Cafarella of the Institute
for the Study of War, both of whom have advocated
direct U.S. military force against the Syrian regime in
support of the armed opposition.
But it was CNAS
that had the political clout to bring the coalition
together under what appeared to be very favorable
circumstances. Michele Flournoy, the founder and CEO of
CNAS and a former third-ranking Pentagon official, was
reported to be Clinton’s likely choice for Secretary of
Defense during the 2016 presidential primaries. And the
June 2016 report of a CNAS “study group” co-chaired by
Flournoy was in line with Clinton’s openly declared
support for a more muscular US intervention in Syria.
That report had
called for a U.S.-declared “no bombing zone” to protect
armed opposition groups, vetted by the CIA, from Syrian
and Russian attacks. Flournoy
had then described the policy in an interview as
telling the Russian and Syrian governments: “If you bomb
the folks we support, we will retaliate using standoff
means to destroy [Russian] proxy forces, or, in this
case, Syrian assets.”
Expecting a Clinton Victory
coalition of think tanks began meeting last summer when
the politics in the United States seemed favorable for a
political campaign for U.S. military intervention in
On Sept. 30,
a lengthy essay calling on the United States to
provide shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to
”moderate” opposition groups as well as to threaten
attacks on the Syrian army if it violated the ceasefire.
Lister was obviously hoping that President Clinton would
adopt that policy option a few months later.
Now the new
strategy group is trying
to sell the same proposal to Trump, calling it “a
holistic, preventative counter-terrorism policy that
empowers moderate Syrians … to overcome extremists in
Syria.” It argues that Al Qaeda is seeking to gain
control over areas now controlled by “moderate” forces
in order to establish “an enduring Sunni extremist order
argument that these armed groups, which the U.S. has
supported in the past, would be prepared to resist Al
Qaeda’s long-term caliphate with more money and arms and
U.S. bombing of Assad’s air force, is too divorced from
reality to have traction in Washington now. In fact, the
so-called “moderate” armed groups have never been truly
independent of Al Qaeda in Syria. They have depended on
the highly disciplined troops of Al Qaeda and its
closest allies and the military strategy devised by Al
Qaeda commanders to pressure the Assad regime.
has been clear on this point. Under his proposed plan
for the United States to use the threat of military
force against the regime, the CIA-vetted “moderate”
armed opposition groups were not expected to end their
military cooperation with Al Qaeda’s Fateh al-Sham or to
separate themselves physically from its forces, as had
been provided in both the February and September
explicitly his assumption that such cooperation was
“unlikely to diminish significantly” – even if his
proposal were to be carried out. Rather, the idea of
Lister’s plan was to force negotiations on the Assad
regime. That aim would still obviously have required the
continued military power of Fateh al-Sham and its close
ally, Ahrar al-Sham, to succeed.
Lister and his
fellow coalition members are not likely to be able to
sell the new administration on the idea that any of the
Syrian armed groups the CIA has supported would even
consider seriously resisting Fateh al-Sham under any
remotely believable circumstances.
Army: The Only Alternative?
columnist David Ignatius recently
recalled meeting with leaders of Harakat al-Hazm,
considered the most promising “moderate” armed group in
Syria, at a safehouse in Turkey in late 2014. He found
them “despondent” because the United States had just
carried out a rare air strike on Al Qaeda operatives
believed to be plotting a terrorist attack on the West.
Ignatius that, because of the U.S. bombing what was then
called the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda would no longer
tolerate their own group’s operations. Soon after the
meeting, the Nusra Front did indeed eliminate Harakat
al-Hazm and appropriate all the TOW missiles and other
military equipment the CIA had given them.
account reflects a fundamental reality throughout
northern Syria, from 2013 onwards, that was simply
ignored in media coverage: all of the opposition groups
have been absorbed into an Al Qaeda-controlled
political-military order. The idea that the “moderate”
groups could be a bulwark against Al Qaeda, which is now
being peddled by Lister, Cafarella and CNAS, no longer
has any credibility even in those quarters in Washington
that were once open to it.
sign of the shift in attitude toward those groups’ mood
in Washington is the fact that Ignatius used the past
tense in referring to the CIA’s program of arming the
“moderate” groups in Syria in his article last month.
military leadership was never on board with the policy
of relying on those armed groups to advance U.S.
interests in Syria in the first place. It recognized
that, despite the serious faults of the Assad regime,
the Syrian army was the only Syrian institution
committed to resisting both Al Qaeda and Islamic State.
It seems likely
that the Trump administration will now return to that
point as it tries to rebuild a policy from the ashes of
the failed policy of the Obama administration.
Gareth Porter is
an independent investigative journalist and winner of
the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author
of Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran
expressed in this article are solely those of the author
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
Information Clearing House.
It is unacceptable to slander, smear or engage in personal attacks on authors of articles posted on ICH.
Those engaging in that behavior will be banned from the comment section.
with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material
is distributed without profit to those who have
expressed a prior interest in receiving the
included information for research and educational
purposes. Information Clearing House has no
affiliation whatsoever with the originator of
this article nor is Information ClearingHouse
endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)