National Security

Demise of group backing moderate Syria rebels is a warning for U.S.

Syrian rebels prepare to make bombs to be used against government forces, at their post in Maaret Misreen, near Idlib, Syria.
Syrian rebels prepare to make bombs to be used against government forces, at their post in Maaret Misreen, near Idlib, Syria. AP

Two years after the Obama administration granted it a rare license to raise money for Syrian rebels, a Washington-based opposition nonprofit group that tried to help the United States build a moderate fighting force is defunct.

The Syrian Support Group quietly shut down last month, another casualty of the murky battleground conditions, lack of resources and infighting that have doomed every U.S.-backed attempt at creating a viable opposition partner.

A timely reminder of the fates of such projects, the group’s implosion comes as President Barack Obama tethers his new strategy against Islamic State extremists to a so-called moderate Syrian opposition force that does not yet exist in a cohesive form.

Former organizers of the Syrian Support Group say the Obama administration shares the blame for the collapse of their campaign, and for the broader challenge of finding allies among fighters who’ve spent years seeking U.S. military help in their struggle against Bashar Assad’s government only to be asked, now, to serve as foot soldiers against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The lesson from the Syrian Support Group’s experience, the organizers said, is that half-measures just won’t cut it in such an enormous undertaking.

“If you’re going to make an investment in developing a relationship, you’ve got to go all the way. You can’t just hope; there has to be a real commitment and follow-through,” Mazen Asbahi, a Chicago-based attorney who served as the president of the Syrian Support Group, said of the U.S. approach to Syria. “There was always this dithering: Are we going to do it or not?”

Now, some U.S. officials speak dismissively of the group and seek to disassociate themselves from it. But for years they enjoyed cozy ties with the Syrian-American activists. In 2012, the Treasury Department granted a sought-after license that made it the only U.S. group authorized to collect money for the rebels.

In April 2013, Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, praised the group in a letter that noted its help facilitating U.S. contacts with Syrian rebel leaders and arranging safe passage for an aid convoy that was stopped by gunmen. Ford, who was accompanied by a member of the Syrian Support Group when he visited opposition-controlled territories, lauded the group’s “impressive work in shaping a free and democratic Syria.”

That description is at odds with the account this week from a U.S. official, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of Syria policy, who said the group “talked a big game” and meant well but that its end goal of arming the rebels “never really lined up” with U.S. policy.

The official said the group’s unraveling wouldn’t affect U.S. efforts to build a moderate rebel force; he said U.S. officials already “have mechanisms and know the groups we want to work with” in the latest push to build an armed moderate force.

“Are we in an ideal place? Fact of the matter: No,” the U.S. official said. “Are we in a better place today than a year ago? Most certainly.”

Such a dismissive tone toward the Syrian Support Group angers the former organizers, who recounted example after example of projects for which U.S. officials had sought their help. They said the group had facilitated early shipments of U.S. food rations and medical supplies that together totaled around $10 million. They said they’d helped defectors make contact with opposition groups and had arranged Skype conversations between U.S. officials and militia commanders before rebel battalions even had names.

Organizers said they’d gone to great lengths to keep their word to the Americans, obsessively keeping receipts and tracking items. In one delivery of U.S. supplies to the rebels, the forklift wasn’t the right size to get the pallets into the warehouse so a Syrian Support Group member and local activists went door to door in nearby villages, frantically looking for a suitable forklift before the Assad regime could spot the shipment and bomb it. They found one.

“All of that to make sure it stayed covered and was delivered, as we’d promised,” Majd Abbar, a former Microsoft executive who’s a founder of the Syrian Support Group, said in a telephone interview from Doha, Qatar.

When a rebel fighting with a U.S.-backed group became an Internet sensation due to a video that showed him eating the organs of a dead regime soldier, the State Department asked the Syrian Support Group to track down the man and get the story. The group’s network found him within hours, Abbar said.

Twice, Abbar recounted, rebels abducted United Nations forces and the State Department asked the Syrian Support Group to intervene. The troops were released in both cases, Abbar said, adding that one instance required them to yank the rebel commander out of a meeting in Doha to give the release orders.

Another time, the group coordinated the exhumation of a corpse so that an eyeball could be tested for evidence of a chemical attack. Abbar said the group arranged for the samples to be delivered to the U.S. embassy in Beirut so fast that his American contacts hadn’t even had time to tell the mission what was coming.

The group also ran a busy media arm, arranging interviews with rebel field commanders and offering opposition reaction on U.S. policy for journalists, who struggled to cover Syria because of the dangers there and the unreliability of official statements.

“Honestly, when we started, the U.S. was at a complete loss as to what was happening on the ground,” Abbar said.

On the fundraising side, however, the situation had grown bleak. Asbahi said they’d collected “hundreds of thousands” of dollars before money dried up, partly because the Syrian expatriate community already was tapped out from the humanitarian crisis and partly because donors grew worried about giving to a movement that had become infiltrated by more radical elements.

“There were serious doubts about whether the Free Syrian Army had any chance of winning,” Asbahi said. “And then ISIS, and the formation of something called the Islamic Front, and Ahrar al Sham. It just got really confusing for people.”

Last month, the group sent a letter to donors explaining that “over the last year, the political winds have changed.” The rise of the Islamic State and al Qaida’s Nusra Front, as well as other divisions among rebels, “have complicated our efforts to provide direct support,” according to the letter, which was first excerpted this month in a report in Mother Jones magazine that noted the Syrian Support Group’s collapse.

The group’s downward spiral encapsulates the American experience so far with moderate opposition forces that the Obama administration would claim to support but in reality didn’t trust.

On the political side, Washington backed an early opposition formation that turned into a Muslim Brotherhood vehicle and was forced to reshuffle, only to be absorbed into what’s now the Syrian Opposition Coalition.

The current iteration is said to be better organized but plagued by the same old problems – pretty much no sway in Syria and a reputation as an out-of-touch exile group. Still, the U.S. government considers the group the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, a largely symbolic determination.

The Obama administration’s effort to work with the Free Syrian Army, which in truth is less an army than a loosely affiliated band of militias, was similarly unsuccessful. It didn’t take long for the rebels to complain publicly that promised U.S. assistance wasn’t arriving; they also begged in vain for heavier weapons and Western air support.

Their cause wasn’t helped by Free Syrian Army units being caught repeatedly coordinating with the Nusra Front, a transgression the full import of which was made clear Tuesday in Syria, when U.S. cruise missiles targeted eight Nusra facilities that allegedly were housing members of an al Qaida unit that U.S. officials called the Khorasan group and said was plotting attacks in the West. At least 50 Nusra militants were killed.

Nine months after the State Department called the moderate rebel commander Gen. Salim Idriss “a key component of the future of the Syrian opposition,” he was fired by his own military council. He’d lost any real authority by last December, after Islamist fighters seized his group’s warehouses, exposing the vulnerability of the U.S.-backed moderates. The U.S. government was forced to suspend millions of dollars in nonlethal aid.

“We were a small piece of a bigger equation and, in order for this whole thing to work, in order for us to support a body, the body must exist,” Abbar said. “The failure of the Obama administration’s policy is what caused the collapse of the moderate force. We were still there, but we didn’t have anybody to support.”

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