Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl writes: American failure to take early, decisive action to prevent a power vacuum in Syria was a significant factor in the rise of ISIS. Such action could have been taken far earlier. One of the main sources of U.S. reluctance to do so has been the fragmentation and radicalization of the armed Syrian opposition. But this concern over acting in Syria mistakenly identifies the character of the opposition as the source of that fragmentation and radicalization.
In fact, dynamics within the war itself and not the inherent nature of the opposition have contributed significantly to the current disarray. In an ongoing research project on alliances and infighting between Syrian armed groups, I show how infighting among the opposition’s military formations increases when and where the fighting against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has become stalemated or indecisive. The implications are two-fold. Fragmentation and radicalization in Syria were driven by factors that allowed the proliferation of armed opposition groups and by the absence of military support designed to bolster their offensive capabilities.
When the sources of the state of the armed opposition are weighed against U.S. policy on Syria since the war’s outset, the picture is clear: A hesitant U.S. role was central to the fragmentation and radicalization of the opposition. Particularly to blame are the combined failures to coordinate the actions of other pro-opposition states, to provide timely financial and military support to the opposition, and to use military support to produce qualitative changes in the opposition’s capabilities vis-à-vis the regime.
Such a causal story offers a different reading of ISIS’s swift organization of a militarily effective force, its barbaric violence and its consolidation of territory from Syria into northern Iraq. While the rise of ISIS might appear to confirm the worst fears of those who argued that the United States should not support the armed Syrian opposition, in fact it shows the opposite. [Continue reading…]