Success: Syrian opposition gets short shrift after SOTU bragging

Just how successful has the strategy to use “moderate Syrian opposition” been as a bulwark against ISIS? The White House has identified these groups as their key strategy against ISIS, after waiting years until they became a sideshow to the rise of ISIS. In their haste to craft a strategy to deal with the marauding army of terrorists rampaging across Syria and Iraq, the Obama administration grasped at John McCain’s proposals offered when it was still just a matter of choosing sides in a civil war, as the one way to claim that American troops would not be needed to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS.”

In his State of the Union speech a week ago, Barack Obama claimed that partnering with the Syrian opposition groups had proven the superiority of his strategy:

At the same time, we’ve learned some costly lessons over the last 13 years.  Instead of Americans patrolling the valleys of Afghanistan, we’ve trained their security forces, who have now taken the lead, and we’ve honored our troops’ sacrifice by supporting that country’s first democratic transition.  Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we’re partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America.

In Iraq and Syria, American leadership — including our military power — is stopping ISIL’s advance.  Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.  (Applause.)  We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.

Now, this effort will take time.  It will require focus.  But we will succeed.

While Obama bragged about the success of “supporting a moderate opposition,” his administration had been cutting funding to them — for months, according to Tim Mak and Jamie Dettmer of The Daily Beast:

In the past several months many of the Syrian rebel groups previously favored by the CIA have had their money and supplies cut off or substantially reduced, even as President Obama touted the strategic importance of American support for the rebels in his State of the Union address.

The once-favored fighters are operating under a pall of confusion. In some cases, they were not even informed that money would stop flowing. In others, aid was reduced due to poor battlefield performance, compounding already miserable morale on the ground.

From afar, the U.S.-approved and partially American-armed Syrian “opposition” seems to be a single large, if rather amorphous, organization. But in fact it’s a collection of “brigades” of varying sizes and potentially shifting loyalties which have grown up around local leaders, or, if you will, local warlords. And while Washington talks about the Syrian “opposition” in general terms, the critical question for the fighters in the field and those supporting them is, “opposition to whom?” To Syrian President Assad? To the so-called Islamic State, widely known as ISIS or ISIL? To the al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra?

That lack of clarity is crippling the whole effort, not least because of profound suspicions among rebel groups that Washington is ready to cut some sort of deal with Assad in the short or medium term if, indeed, it has not done so already. For Washington, the concern is that the forces it supports are ineffectual, or corrupt, or will defect to ISIS or Nusra—or all of the above.

The Wall Street Journal also reports today that the mission has gone “awry” in Syria:

All sides now agree that the U.S.’s effort to aid moderate fighters battling the Assad regime has gone badly. The CIA program was the riskiest foray into Syria since civil war erupted in 2011.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is clinging to power after more than 200,000 deaths blamed on the war. Moderate fighters control only a fraction of northern Syria, while Islamic State and al Qaeda’s official affiliate, the Nusra Front, have gained ground. Last fall, Nusra overran one trusted commander and seized another’s equipment.

Entire CIA-backed rebel units, including fighters numbering in the “low hundreds” who went through the training program, have changed sides by joining forces with Islamist brigades, quit the fight or gone missing.

“We walk around Syria with a huge American flag planted on our backs, but we don’t have enough AK-47s in our hands to protect ourselves,” a leader of the Hazzm Movement, among the most trusted of the trusted commanders, told U.S. lawmakers in a meeting after Nusra’s advances.

The CIA recently stopped offering help to all but a few trusted commanders in Syria. Much of the U.S.’s focus is shifting to southern Syria, where rebels seem more unified but say they get just 5% to 20% of the arms requested from the CIA.

Many have been skeptical about the so-called “moderate” opposition in Syria for years, of course. The failure of this strategy as an effective defense against ISIS, let alone an offense, won’t surprise those who have paid attention to the region and the collapse of the Iraqi army in particular. The amazing part of this is that all of this has been known to the US for months. Most of it was initiated by the Obama administration, especially the funding cutoffs. Yet Obama stood before a joint session of Congress and a prime-time audience (such as it was) and flat-out lied about the success of the program and its impact on ISIS.

It’s not difficult to understand why, either. Obama opted to scotch talks that would have kept enough American troops in Iraq to pressure Nouri al-Maliki from conducting sectarian purges of the military we spent years building. Had our influence been available to prevent that, the Sunni and Kurd split and the collapse of the Iraqi military could have been prevented, and ISIS would just be another rag-tag operation focused almost entirely on Syria. To defeat ISIS now, it will take a large number of ground troops for a substantial time commitment to drive them out of territory they now firmly occupy. Instead of admitting the strategic mistake, Obama wants to pretend it never happened, and that we’re winning just because he says we are. Unbelievable — literally.