Syria’s most important rebels are Islamists, and we have to work with them anyway

Shadi Hamid writes: The announcement of a new Islamist “alliance” in Syria—bringing together the largest and most influential rebel factions—is only the latest sign of a failed Western strategy. Several of these groups, including Liwa al-Islam and Liwa al-Tawhid, were previously linked to the Western-backed “moderate” Supreme Military Council (SMC). The implications are significant not just for Syria’s fractious opposition but for American strategy more broadly. As Charles Lister writes, this “effectively depletes…the SMC,” which, at least until recently, embodied Western hopes for a more palatable, more unified rebel force.

For more than two years, the U.S. and its allies have embarked on a quixotic effort to mold the political and military opposition, an effort that has only grown less effective over time. Repeatedly, the rebels were promised greater support and more arms, but it was usually a case of too little too late, if at all. After the U.S.-Russia deal on chemical weapons, Syria’s rebels had even less reason to count on Western support. They were demoralized after military strikes seemed imminent only to be scrapped at the last minute. As one rebel commander put it, “we should have known better than to believe them.” Sheikh Omar Othman, a leader in Liwa al-Tawhid, one of the constituent groups of the new “Islamic alliance,” said, “we were depending on this.”

But “this” never came and the sense of betrayal that was always there took further hold. With his seemingly eager compliance on chemical weapons, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was looking more like a partner than an enemy, prompting John Kerry, in yet another classic Kinsley gaffe, to give “credit” to the dictator. Perhaps Assad didn’t “need to go” after all.

For some time, members of both the military and political opposition had wondered whether the United States was really on their side. It was Foreign Policy‘s Daniel Drezner who, in June, put the pieces together and popularized the idea that a bloody stalemate in Syria wasn’t evidence of the administration’s failure but its success. It sounded awfully cynical at the time, but the Obama administration did, in fact, fear an outright rebel victory. And, more recently, American officials have made the unstated rather explicit, telling the Washington Post that the CIA’s efforts to train Syrian rebels were meant to be limited and ineffectual. The goal, the Post reported, was “to provide enough support to help ensure that politically moderate, U.S.-supported militias don’t lose but not enough for them to win.” [Continue reading…]

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