We Don’t Need and Won’t Find Moderates to Defeat ISIL


Who exactly is this Syrian opposition we are assisting and why?

Earlier this month, President Obama announced that “we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition” and called upon Congress to authorize “additional authorities and resources” to that end. Congress complied, and the following week a bi-partisan measure passed both houses. So now the President has his authorization.

The Administration called upon Congress in June to fund rebels in Syria, asking for $500 million to arm “vetted” Syrian moderates to “help defend the Syrian people, stabilize areas under opposition control, facilitate the provision of essential services, counter terrorist threats, and promote conditions for a negotiated settlement.”

This begs the question, what defines a rebel force as “moderate” in Syria? Is it its commitment to establish strong, democratic institutions? Are fighters certified as “moderate” if they pledge to abstain from atrocities and gross violations of human rights, such as suicide bombings and eating the hearts of their enemies? Perhaps the moderates are simply those rebels who don’t demonstrate blatant contempt for the United States in their rhetoric. In reality, there are no moderates in Syria, as most recently evidenced by “moderate” Syrian protesters condemning U.S. bombings of the Khorasan group, the terrorist vanguard of the popular, al Qaeda- associated Syrian rebel group Jabhat al Nusra. “Moderate” Syrians’ inability to distinguish between the rebels fighting Assad and the network of terrorists seeking to attack the U.S. should serve as proof that it is folly to believe that moderate leadership will somehow spring forth from this extremist morass. And if, per some miraculous chance, it did, would the fundamentalist rebels ever consent to laying down their arms and recognize the legitimacy of a moderate regime? Different as the various rebel groups may seem, they are all tragically similar in the one way that counts: their fundamentalism precludes them from living under the rule of the others.

President Obama’s goal of “promoting the conditions for a negotiated settlement” is not essential to the U.S. objective to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This goal represents mission creep in a mission that has barely begun. If Obama insists on trying to find moderates to replace ISIL, he has conflated the strategy to defeat this insurgency with an ill-defined and unannounced U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war.

This is a mistake for two reasons. First, this is not the mission he shared with Congress or the American people – it would be far costlier, longer and uglier than anything the President described. Second, it’s just not possible. Though I believe searching for moderates in Syria is akin to searching for unicorns, were we to hypothetically find the perfect opposition forces – the very definition of moderate (whatever that is) – they still would need to reconcile with a host of extremist factions on every side whose members would rather die than compromise. Good luck finding a negotiated settlement under those conditions.

The President must not allow the operation to destroy ISIL to metastasize into an impossible and protracted mission to unify Syria. Syria is beyond our power to save. It is a nation split by demographics that are united only in their complete estrangement from negotiation as a means of conflict resolution. Syria hasn’t had a democratic government since 1949 and since then, autocracy has been the norm. If the lessons of past interventions have taught us anything, it should be the limits of American power in democratic state-building. Though Washington can vanquish regimes, it has limited ability to shape who or what comes next, and the power to do so comes at a cost well beyond what the American people are prepared to pay. Who will rule Syria? The answer to that question is beyond the scope of our mission and our control. Whoever emerges to fill the void of ISIL in Syria likely will not govern by consensus or be “moderate” in any common definition of the word. We just have to live with that.


Jonathan Lord is a private sector research analyst in security matters and a graduate of Vassar College and the Georgetown University Security Studies Program.


Photo credit: Freedom House