How to Turn Syria’s Opposition Into a Real Fighting Force
By Kenneth M. Pollack in Foreign Affairs
Syria is a hard one. The arguments against the United States’ taking a more active role in ending the vicious three-year-old conflict there are almost perfectly balanced by those in favor of intervening, especially in the aftermath of the painful experiences of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The cons begin with the simple fact that the United States has no interests in Syria itself. Syria is not an oil producer, a major U.S. trade partner, or even a democracy.
Worse still, intercommunal civil wars such as Syria’s tend to end in one of two ways: with a victory by one side, followed by a horrific slaughter of its adversaries, or with a massive intervention by a third party to halt the fighting and forge a power-sharing deal. Rarely do such wars reach a resolution on their own through a peaceful, negotiated settlement, and even when they do, it is typically only after many years of bloodshed. All of this suggests that the kind of quick, clean diplomatic solution many Americans favor will be next to impossible to achieve in Syria.
Nevertheless, the rationale for more decisive U.S. intervention is gaining ground. As of this writing, the crisis in Syria had claimed more than 170,000 lives and spilled over into every neighboring state. The havoc is embodied most dramatically in the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, a Sunni jihadist organization born of the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq. After regrouping in Syria, ISIS (which declared itself the Islamic State in late June) recently overran much of northern Iraq and helped rekindle that country’s civil war. ISIS is now using the areas it controls in Iraq and Syria to breed still more Islamist extremists, some of whom have set their sights on Western targets. Meanwhile, Syria’s conflict is also threatening to drag down its other neighbors — particularly Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, where the influx of nearly three million refugees is already straining government budgets and stoking social unrest.
After resisting doing so for three years, the White House is now scrambling to expand its role in the turmoil. In June, U.S. President Barack Obama requested $500 million from Congress to ramp up U.S. assistance to moderate members of the Syrian opposition (such assistance has until recently been limited to a covert training program in Jordan). Yet at every stage of the debate on Syria, the administration has maintained that the only way to decisively ensure the demise of the Assad regime is to deploy large numbers of ground troops.
But there is, in fact, a way that the United States could get what it wants in Syria — and, ultimately, in Iraq as well — without sending in U.S. forces: by building a new Syrian opposition army capable of defeating both President Bashar al-Assad and the more militant Islamists. The United States has pulled off similar operations before and could probably do so again, and at far lower cost than what it has spent in Afghanistan and Iraq. Considering the extent to which the Iraqi and Syrian civil wars have become entwined, such a strategy would help secure U.S. interests throughout the Middle East. Indeed, despite its drawbacks, it has become the best option for the United States and the people of Syria and the region.
Read more at Foreign Affairs