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article imageOp-Ed: Obama's moderate rebels in Syria may be hard to find

By Ken Hanly     Oct 5, 2014 in Politics
Washington - Obama's strategy for battling the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq envisions using proxy troops on the ground rather than US forces. In Iraq there are the Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi forces.
Kurdish forces will also fight against the Islamic State in Syria. Obama intends to spend a half billion dollars to arm and train "moderate" rebels to carry out attacks against the Islamic State as well. After the House approved the bill it passed the Senate by a vote of 78-22. The vote was on a combined bill to fund the government and prevent a shutdown and this makes it unreliable as a measure of support for Obama's mission. However, many analysts doubt Obama will be able to find many rebels who will share the Obama vision of what should happen in Iraq. Even moderate rebels believe the first order of business should be defeating the Assad regime rather than fighting against the Islamic State. Moderate rebels were incensed that US bombing hit not only the Islamic State but also the Al Nusra Front an Al-Qaeda approved group that is cooperating with other rebels against the Assad regime.
Few of the groups operating on the ground against Assad espouse liberal democratic values, but the Free Syrian Army has been considered a moderate group — at least in that the umbrella group is not explicitly fighting for an Islamist type state as are the Islamic Front, one of the larger rebel groups. However, as this Al Jazeera article points out, there are fatal flaws with the FSA: The FSA is currently the weakest force on the ground in Syria, a result not only of inadequate foreign backing compared with that of rival Islamist and extremist factions, but of its own internal divisions, byzantine leadership structure (based in Turkey) and rampant corruption. President Obama himself recently admitted it was a “fantasy” to believe a bunch of “doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” ever had a chance of overthrowing the Moscow-backed regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad by themselves.
The FSA is an umbrella group composed of small sub-groups across Syria who fight under the FSA banner, but there is no clear chain of command nor cohesive ideology that unites them. The FSA continually loses fighters to other better-funded Islamist groups and even the Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Al Nusra and the Islamic State. When the FSA does take territory from Assad, it is usually through cooperation with more radical groups. Even when it has taken territory it often loses it, as happened in the north when the Islamic State or ISIL as it then was, simply took the area from the FSA.. Many analysts believe that Obama is interested only in ensuring that the rebel forces remain strong enough to force Assad to the bargaining table but not strong enough to defeat his forces.
Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma said: “Frankly we’ve seen too many failed states fill up with jihadist militias. The FSA wouldn’t bring unified rule in Syria, they would bring Somalia, just like you’ve already got in the north.” However defenders of the FSA and the western-backed political group the Syrian National Coalition believe that better arms and training would solve the defection problems of the FSA and make it a stronger fighting force.
Critics point out that the $500 million set aside for training and equipping moderate rebels is nowhere near what is thought to be required to combat Assad effectively. The US wants these rebels to fight the Islamic State first but even most members of the FSA oppose that.
Abelnasr Farzat, a top FSA commander in the Aleppo area until last year but now based in Turkey said: “We must first eliminate the root cause of terrorism, and then the consequences of terrorism." While the US wants peace talks and political negotiations to end the conflict, very few FSA fighters would agree to this. The US had a decade to train and arm the Iraqi army but the resulting forces were not up to combating determined Islamic State fighters.
Even some US lawmakers opposed Obama's plans. Rand Paul, a Republican Senator from Kentucky said: "Intervention that destabilizes the Middle East is a mistake. And yet, here we are again, wading into a civil war." Senator Mark Begich, a Democrat from Alabama, also disagreed with Obama's policy and suggested that Arab countries should be leading the way in fighting the Islamic State. Begich nevertheless voted for the bill since he wanted to ensure that the government was funded.
The proposal to choose moderate rebels and then arm and train them inspired the Borowitz Report in the New Yorker to create an application form to be submitted in order to receive weapons from the US that consists of a series of questions. Here is one: If I were given a highly lethal automatic weapon by the United States, I would:
A) Only kill exactly the people that the United States wanted me to kill
B) Try to kill the right people, with the caveat that I have never used an automatic weapon before
C) Kill people only after submitting them to a rigorous vetting process
D) Immediately let the weapon fall into the wrong hands
Obama's plans may also be foiled by rebels deciding to agree not to fight radical Islamists even the Islamic State as long as they join in fighting the Assad regime. There are reports of a truce being negotiated in at least one area already. After the US bombed not only the Islamic State but Al Nusra as well there were many demonstrations not just in support of Al Nusra, the Al Qaeda-linked group that cooperates with the rebels. An article in CounterPunch even suggests that the none of the groups of rebels in series of any significant size are not moderate, that there really are no moderate rebels.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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