As Russia presses ahead with its intervention in Syria, the Obama administration is falling under mounting pressure to somehow counter Moscow’s move, though it has so far limited itself to demanding that Moscow cease attacks on targets unrelated to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). This response suffers from the same misconceptions that led U.S. Syria policy to the dead end in which it is now trapped.
Where are the moderates?
When Washington criticizes Russia for targeting the Syrian opposition rather than ISIS, Americans probably imagine Putin’s missiles raining down upon the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other moderate groups. U.S. media supports this illusion with maps of the conflict that make no distinction between different non-ISIS rebel groups. The New York Times, for instance, supplied its readers with maps of Russian airstrikes through Oct. 8 that place the vast majority within an area simply labeled “Rebel.”
Reality is more complicated. According to territorial control maps by the Institute for the Study of War, about a third of Russia’s supposedly anti-“rebel” airstrikes depicted in the New York Times map were carried out in al-Qaeda-controlled or -dominated areas. In addition, virtually all rebel-held territories either host the terrorist group or are controlled by factions that are under its influence, ideologically similar to it, or militarily dependent upon it.
Most rebel-held settlements are jointly occupied by the FSA, al-Qaeda (whose Syria wing is called al-Nusra), and the radically-Salafist Islamic Front, and jihadist-free territory is barely visible on a Rand Institute map of the conflict.
Thus, it is actually understandable that the New York Times and others have lumped the territory controlled by all non-ISIS rebels together – it is impossible to divide it meaningfully. Instead, U.S. media do not explain that this territory is al-Qaeda’s just as much as it is the FSA’s. This has two important implications. First, just because Russia is not striking ISIS does not mean that it is striking the FSA deliberately (although it is doing that, too).It has frequently targeted al-Qaeda and other Salafist groups that are hardly any better. Forbidding Russia to strike any non-ISIS opposition amounts to diplomatically defending the same organization that flew planes into the World Trade Center, and which in other theaters the U.S. would itself attack with Predator drones.
Who are the moderates?
Second, the realization that practically all rebel-controlled territory is at least partly in the hands of Salafists and al-Qaeda ought to raise the question, from which Washington for four years has averted its eyes, of what exactly would come of a U.S. “victory” in Syria. To answer this question, we must decide first, which rebel groups would make acceptable rulers of Syria, and second, whether they have a realistic chance of victory, or whether the U.S. can give them one.
The main rebel factions in the Syrian Civil War are, in roughly descending order of strength, ISIS, the Islamic Front, the al-Qaeda-led Army of Conquest, and the FSA. The FSA is generally seen as secular or (genuinely) moderately Islamist. Its victory in the war could be an acceptable, even optimal, outcome. Al-Qaeda, its fellow travelers, and ISIS are obviously unacceptable, as their triumph would likely produce chaos, genocide, a fundamentalist regime within Syria, and the export of radical Salafism and terror.
Despite probably being the most powerful rebel group, the Islamic Front receives little attention in the West, usually amalgamated along with the FSA into a generic group of “rebels.” In fact, it is little better than the more infamous al-Qaeda or ISIS. A Rand Institute report describes the Front’s members as “Salafist, that is, they believe in a literal interpretation of the Quran, reject Western political concepts that place man above God (e.g. democracy), and support the strict imposition of Islamic law, or Sharia. They see the overthrow of Assad as leading to an Islamic state.”
The highest praise the Rand report can offer is the caveat that “not all” of the Front’s members “embrace al-Qaeda’s ideology of an unending global jihad against infidels.” This is not very reassuring. An Islamic Front regime might actually be one of the most dangerous possible outcomes in Syria. Like the Taliban, it would probably enjoy sufficient acceptance amongst its Sunni neighbors, some of whom actively support it, to survive for longer than an al-Qaeda or ISIS regimes subjected to constant internal pressure.
At the same time, one should not rule out that the Islamic Front’s supporters might pursue the internal imposition and foreign export of Salafist Islamism, and the genocide of Syria’s Alawite, Christian, and Kurdish minorities, just as its more radical counterparts would have.
Can the moderates win?
If the FSA is thus the only major rebel group whose victory in the Syrian civil war is likely to be an acceptable outcome for the U.S. and the West, what is the likelihood of that victory? Unfortunately, it is hardly likely. In September 2013, there were estimations that the FSA made up around a quarter of the Syrian rebels’ strength. A 2014 Rand Institute report warned that, “Islamist hardliners will increasingly dominate the rebellion.”
Its September 2015 sequel confirmed that the FSA was “the principal loser among the rebels in 2014.”
“By the middle of 2015, the FSA had virtually disappeared, its fighters having joined the more religiously motivated formations in Syria,” the Rand Institute report reads. With the FSA so much weaker than all other major opposition groups, it stands no realistic chance of contesting their rule in the aftermath of a hypothetical opposition victory. No amount of aid to the FSA, or attacks against the Syrian government on its behalf, can bring to power a group that is so fundamentally weak, and thus such actions will ultimately amount to de facto support for the Salafists, whose rule of Syria is at this point synonymous with opposition victory.
Syria: A proxy war between Russia and the U.S.
If Syria turns into Russia’s new Afghanistan, it could also become a proxy war between Russia and the U.S., with all its grave implications. The rebels Washington supports will accomplish little more than helping the radicals into power, at which point they will be absorbed or destroyed. In this case, Syria might fall under the rule of those who will cause the country, its region, and the West far more harm than the victory of Syrian President Bashar Assad (and, thus, his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin) ever could have.
It is therefore time to accept that the U.S. has run out of moves in Syria. It has been checkmated, not by Putin’s decisiveness or Obama’s weakness, but by the inevitable outcome of decisions made years ago.
From the beginning of the civil war, Russia backed its most powerful participant, whom it supports without limitation or reservation, as the Kremlin can be confident that Assad will not later turn against it, and that supporting him will not inadvertently secure victory for another, highly undesirable faction.
The U.S., on the other hand, has had no choice but to spend the last four years unsuccessfully searching for rebels who are both competent and moderate, of whom it has apparently found twenty, whose competence remains debatable. It is now, at last, clear that this effort, never especially promising, is utterly doomed by the eclipse of Syria’s moderate opposition.
Washington must recognize that continuing to pursue increasingly pointless, desperate, and risky policies will fail in the best case, catastrophically backfire in the worst. Instead, Washington should acknowledge not only that Assad and his backers are likely to win the war, but also that this is the best, most realistic outcome.
Cooperation with them might be distasteful to those who view international politics as a morality play, but it could grant some influence over the conflict’s outcome, or at least help end the bloodshed slightly sooner.