In an effort to map out the ideological spectrum of Syria’s various rebel groups, Turkish and American officials used a color-coded scheme: green for trusted friends, red for clear-cut enemies and yellow for those in the middle.
That middle section turned into a point of contention when it became clear that the Turks were willing to work with groups that were anathema to the United States, including al Qaida’s Nusra Front and the hard-line Ahrar al Sham. Turkish officials seemed to be gambling that they could build a moderate rebel force by nudging groups in the middle toward the green, friendly category.
“We said, ‘Yes, sure, OK, but a number of the groups that you’re working with, which you consider open to persuasion, we consider beyond the pale. And we will not work with them, and we’d rather you not work with them and we think they need to be blocked from transiting your borders,’ ” Francis Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey until last month, recalled Thursday in a media call arranged by the Atlantic Council foreign policy institute, where he’s now the director of the Middle East program.
“We ultimately had no choice but to agree to disagree,” Ricciardone said.
U.S. officials haven’t publicly acknowledged previously knowing that Turkey was providing assistance to Nusra, which the State Department designated a foreign terrorist organization in December 2012. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Now the schism with Turkey, never resolved, is resurfacing in a more public way with President Barack Obama’s pledge to build a “moderate” Syrian rebel force as he wades deeper into the Middle East’s turmoil. When the United States and Muslim partners such as Turkey or Saudi Arabia clash over the very definition of “moderate,” who gets to decide the makeup of a coalition-backed rebel force? And no matter what it’s called, is Obama ready to accept the risk of backing a movement that’s widely viewed as too small, too weak and too untrustworthy to win?
“These are serious questions that are not yet resolved,” Ricciardone said. And, he added, “they might not be resolvable.”
Analysts who closely follow Syria are divided as to whether the problems can be overcome or will hobble the whole effort, but there’s agreement that finding an acceptable Syrian partner is the least developed and most elusive part of the president’s ultimate goal of destroying the Islamic State.
Obama’s 14-minute address Wednesday night sidestepped his strategy’s Achilles’ heel: No matter how effective U.S. airstrikes are in taking out Islamic State leaders, there’s simply no acceptable Syrian partner on the ground to complement the American role in the sky. The president made no mention of specific factions that would be involved in the coalition’s fight against Islamic State militants, and it’s not at all clear whom he meant when he referred to “the opposition.”
“If you really want to defeat them and get them out of territory, you’re going to need partners on the ground, and it’s unclear whether we will ever find one in Syria,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, the director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy for the Virginia-based RAND Corp. research institute.
The Obama administration has followed a long arc in its search for a Syrian partner, first in the effort to unseat Syrian President Bashar Assad and, now, in the more pressing campaign to defeat the Islamic State. As recently as last month, Obama was quoted as disparaging the Syrian rebels as “doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth,” and saying it was a “fantasy” that they could overthrow Assad.
In the early days of the conflict, U.S. officials insisted they’d work only with the nonviolent, political Syrian opposition. When the dissidents proved to be embarrassingly disorganized and lacking in credibility with ordinary Syrians, U.S. officials moved on to supporting the “moderate” Syrian rebels. Commanders complain, however, that the Americans never took the mission seriously; shipments of packaged meals and medical supplies were derided as “biscuits and Band-Aids.” The rebels wanted heavy weapons and air cover.
The administration homed in on the Supreme Military Council, which it touted as an umbrella for U.S.-friendly rebel fighters, though in reality it held very little power on the ground and, in several cases, rebels under its banner were caught coordinating with Nusra and other jihadist groups, including the Islamic State under its previous name, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Despite intelligence assessments that raised serious doubts about these rebels’ capabilities and loyalties, Secretary of State John Kerry told congressional hearings last September that the Syrian rebel movement had “increasingly become more defined by its moderation.” The opposition, Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “is getting stronger by the day.”
Several months later, the Supreme Military Council all but collapsed – and the U.S. was forced to halt aid – when its fighters were overrun that December by rival Islamists, who seized the group’s warehouses, including the U.S.-donated equipment inside.
Since that humiliation, the Obama administration has moved to a much quieter effort, working directly with about a dozen individual commanders in northern Syria and some 60 smaller groups in the south, rebel leaders told McClatchy earlier this month. The groups report to the CIA. Meanwhile, the old Free Syrian Army types complain that they can no longer get the Americans to take their calls.
“There is no united rebel leadership,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, whose blog, Syria Comment, chronicles the civil war. “The rebels often fight among each other, and most are extremely regional and clan- or village-based. This lack of unity has been the main problem facing the West from the start of the rebellion, because there is no ‘government in waiting’ to replace Assad.”
As if to underscore the complexities of the U.S. task in building a “moderate” Syrian rebel force, the opposition coalition that the United States recognizes as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people put out a statement this week mourning the deaths of dozens of key figures in Ahrar al Sham, an ultraconservative Islamist rebel force that the State Department has considered designating a terrorist organization because of its al Qaida-like ideology. The men died in a mysterious explosion during a high-level meeting.
Ricciardone, the veteran diplomat, said the Turks were willing to work with Ahrar leaders but that the United States “had extreme reservations about our ability to trust them” and wouldn’t agree to arm them.
Yet the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the closest thing Obama has to an alternative to the Assad government, called the explosion that killed the jihadists a deliberate attempt to “silence the voice of moderation.” Only in polarized Syria, with the Islamic State skewing the curve, could such a group seriously be considered mainstream. And, analysts warn, the tug toward radicalism will only increase the longer the conflict festers.
“These things don’t naturally break towards the middle. They break towards the extremes,” said former CIA director Michael Hayden, who was also on the Atlantic Council’s media call. “Doing this, finding that center, reinforcing that center, is more difficult now than it would’ve been six, 12, 18 or 24 months ago.”
Roy Gutman contributed to this report from Baghdad.