Heartbreaking: Obama passed on opportunity to use Syrian army defectors to topple Assad

More than 1,000 Syrian army defectors, some of them ranking officers, are rotting away in Turkish refugee camps while a multi-front war rages just across the border.

“Rather than forming the vanguard of a Western-backed fighting force, they follow the war next door on TV and a Wi-Fi network funded by the Turkish government,” a heartbreaking report in The Wall Street Journal read.

One of the defectors, Col. Malik al-Kurdi, told the Journal that, had the Obama administration acted on their offer to form the spearhead of a movement to oust President Bashar al-Assad, the region’s recent history might have been far different. “What a waste,” said another colonel who noted that his fellow soldiers have deteriorated physically and psychologically in the intervening years.

The Obama administration, faced today with a new war in both Iraq and Syria as a result of years of conflict avoidance, does not dispute that they did not take full advantage of the resources at their disposal in 2011 – 2012.

Obama administration officials disputed the idea that the defectors in Camp Apaydin represented a “huge opportunity” missed, citing divisions among them. The men sparred over who should take the lead and sent mixed messages about their willingness to return to Syria, according to the officials, who said they wouldn’t have been a perfect solution even if mobilized.

“That said,” an administration official added, “there probably were people that we could have done more with earlier and faster.”

As time passed, even advocates within the Obama administration for arming and training Syrian rebels began to doubt whether the defectors in Turkey had a major role to play. They were less essential and relevant than rebel commanders inside Syria who were proving themselves in battle, said Robert Ford, former ambassador to Syria.

Today, the viable moderate Syrian opposition has been all but wiped out.

The Financial Times reported that the Syrian moderate opposition, surrounded in the besieged and battle-scarred city of Aleppo, are uniting in one last effort to prevent that city from falling completely to Assad’s forces.

To Syrians in the opposition, Aleppo’s fate is a barometer of how a US-led intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, will affect their struggle to end four decades of Assad family rule.

Aleppo is also a reminder of what their war used to be. More than two years ago, commanders such as Abu Hozeifa gathered impoverished young men from the countryside and stormed the city, hoping that taking Syria’s economic hub would bring down the regime.

They seized nearly half of their target before a barrage of government air strikes and rockets halted them and levelled entire neighborhoods. Terrified residents have flooded out of the city – in the Marjeh neighborhood, refugees say only 2,000 of its 40,000 residents remain.

The commanders still fighting for Aleppo are greyer now, their beards streaked with white. Any hope of capturing the city is a distant dream.

Today, Syria is a killing field in which Kurds, Islamist militias, anti-Assad rebels, and pro-government forces all struggle over small strips of land repeatedly won and lost. Entering into that toxic mix are coalition air forces. American military forces conducted 11 strikes in Syria over this last weekend alone, many of which were centered near the border city of Kobane where Kurdish fighters have reportedly pushed back Islamic State militants.

What could have been if only the administration had answered the demands placed on it by history and worked towards Assad’s ouster? How much American treasure, and quite possibly blood, will be spent in the coming years to neutralize the growing threat to Western interests incubating in that petri dish of extremism?