A Deadly Delusion: Were Syria’s Rebels Ever Going to Defeat the Jihadists?
President Donald Trump’s decision last month to shutter America’s covert program to arm and train Syrian rebels fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad was likely inevitable, and in any case overdue. The program was premised on applying proxy military pressure to realize an unworkable political outcome – a negotiated resolution that removed Assad. And particularly in its late stages, it was feeding al-Qaeda-type jihadists who had infiltrated and co-opted large sections of the opposition.
The end of America’s “massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad” — in Trump’s own words — has sparked sharp debate over whether the move will benefit jihadists in al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. It will not. But the decision has also provoked a second, derivative argument over whether and how much Syria’s rebels were ever willing and able, historically, to stand up to the jihadists who hijacked Syria’s revolutionary insurgency.
This debate has policy implications — at least counterfactual ones — insofar as U.S.-backed rebels were apparently meant to outcompete and counterbalance jihadists. With a few exceptions, they proved unable to do so.
As Syria’s war dragged on, America’s other policy priorities in the war were gradually subsumed by “counter-terrorism” — a shorthand term for the defeat of the jihadists of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Arguments for backing the array of nationalist and Islamist rebel factions collectively termed the “Free Syrian Army” were increasingly recast in those interests-based terms. Into 2017, some were still retailing U.S.-backed rebels as “an already extremely vetted, truly indigenous, potential counter-terrorism force.”
This did not comport with the historical record. The fact of rebel cooperation with jihadists was consistently excused away as a tactical necessity, or as a function of insufficient U.S. support. But there were only so many times U.S.-backed rebels could function as jihadists’ battlefield auxiliaries, sit and watch as jihadists liquidated other rebel factions, or prove generally unmotivated to fight jihadists before it became impossible to take them seriously as a counter-terrorism force. Rebels were more interested in going at the Assad regime – even if that meant fighting alongside jihadists, or under their command – than standing up to jihadists.
The factional dysfunction and personal entanglements of the rebels meant that jihadists were more central and powerful within the armed opposition than Washington and other rebel backers appreciated or acknowledged. In the end, that not only meant that rebels were useless for counter-terrorism, but also that they couldn’t serve as a viable tool of pressure on the Assad regime or represent a realistic alternative to Assad’s rule. The whole logical edifice of U.S. support for Syria’s insurgency was wormy and rotten.
The counter-terrorism case for backing Syria’s rebels was bogus — an implausible claim by the Syrian opposition that was uncritically and irresponsibly repeated by opposition backers. Policymakers and analysts should have taken jihadist entanglement with Syria’s insurgency more seriously, much earlier. Instead, the policy debate was, for years, built on mythology and tall tales.
The Crux: January 2014 and Rebels’ Fight Against ISIL
The historical argument over the rebel fight against jihadists played out recently in an acrid Twitter back-and-forth between University of Oklahoma professor and longtime Syria expert Joshua Landis and the Middle East Institute’s Charles Lister. The former argued rebels mostly refused to fight al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, and more often fought alongside them. Lister called Landis’s arguments “misinformation” and “lies,” minimizing rebels’ ties with the Islamic State and other jihadists and pointing to their collective fight against the Islamic State in January 2014.
The case for the armed opposition as a counterterrorism force hinges, to a large extent, on this single episode in January 2014. Yet a more critical reading of that one event, especially in the context of rebels’ subsequent fight against the Islamic State, tends to reframe rebels’ utility as a U.S. partner against the Islamic State. Landis’s arguments are an oversimplification, in parts, and occasionally unfair. But the reality sides more with Landis than Lister.
In April 2013, ISIL’s Iraqi predecessor announced it would re-absorb its advance team in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusrah, and expand into Syria. ISIL quickly got to work abducting opposition activists, eliminating smaller, ill-reputed rebel factions, and seizing effective control of border crossings and other sources of revenue. Finally, after months of shocking, brutal provocations and escalating clashes with other rebels, open war erupted in January 2014 between rebels and ISIL in the west Aleppo countryside and then spread across the opposition-held north.
This has been spun, uncritically, into a legend of how rebels expelled ISIL from the northwest. Lister has been among those retailing a fairy-tale version of January 2014. In his 2016 paper, The Free Syrian Army: A decentralized insurgent brand, Lister acknowledges some of the complications in this episode, but nonetheless casts it in hagiographic terms:
The scale of [the opposition’s] success in forcing [ISIL] out of four provinces in 12 weeks is incomparably more significant than what the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have achieved in northeastern Syria in over two years of operations backed by U.S. air support.
Yet the reality of January 2014 was substantially more complicated than Lister would have us believe. In retrospect, ISIL’s withdrawal from the northwest now seems less a rout at rebel hands than a decision by an overstretched, exposed ISIL to regroup in Syria’s desert east. From its new strongholds in the east, ISIL consolidated its forces and resurged in all directions, including into Iraq. Though brigades in some sections of the north such as Jeish al-Mujahideen and Jamal Ma’rouf’s Syrian Revolutionaries Front launched pitched battles against ISIL in January 2014, elsewhere in the northwest, ISIL departed with a mix of local handshake deals and deliberate, tactical retreats.
Other powerful brigades — including Jabhat al-Nusrah and Ahrar al-Sham — absorbed or sheltered ISIL members and facilitated their passage to safe areas in Syria’s east. The horrific death-by-torture of Ahrar commander Hussein “Abu Rayyan” al-Suleiman at ISIL’s hands had been one of the most proximate sparks for the January fighting, but much of Ahrar still couldn’t accept the idea of fighting fellow Islamist militants.
In Raqqa, Ahrar al-Sham fighters confused by ISIL’s religious slogans left local rebels to face ISIL reinforcements alone, only for those same Ahrar fighters to be executed in the dozens at an ISIL checkpoint north of the city. In the Aleppo countryside, gullible local rebel commanders agreed to parlay with ISIL representatives to halt the bloodshed. An ISIL negotiator set off his suicide belt in time with a car bomb, killing the local commander and more than a dozen others. Local rebel resistance folded. ISIL captured and held east Aleppo until Turkey launched its Operation Euphrates Shield intervention more than two years later.
In eastern Deir al-Zour province, Jabhat al-Nusrah and other rebels fought a fierce, losing battle from February to July 2014 as the Islamic State closed in around them. Then ISIL overran Mosul and, swollen with new weapons and materiel it had taken from the Iraqi military, turned west towards Deir al-Zour. Faced with an overwhelming ISIL force, the Deiri opposition split and collapsed. Critically — and characteristically — rebels in Syria’s west left Deir al-Zour alone to lose against ISIL.
After summer 2014, and with the exception of some stubborn Deiris who tried to claw their way back, most of Syria’s rebels gave up on the east.
To be fair, rebels in Syria’s west were trying to fend off the Assad regime and, from 2015, hold out against an overwhelming Russian intervention. But the longer the Islamic State occupied Syria’s east, the clearer it became that western rebels were not sufficiently motivated to liberate what had been revolutionary, opposition-held areas from the Islamic State’s brutality and terror, and the less immediate and compelling the example of January 2014 became.
The whole reason the United States opportunistically struck up a tactical partnership with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — including, as Lister noted in his paper, providing U.S. air support — was because the SDF’s core Kurdish elements were motivated and able to kill the Islamic State in eastern Syria. This set them apart in a way that Lister and other rebel boosters have yet to fully acknowledge. Helpfully, the SDF also was not infiltrated by jihadists, which meant it was possible safely deploy combat advisors and forward air controllers alongside them.
Attempts by the U.S. Department of Defense to build a similar partner force out of Syria’s Arab rebels mostly failed. The most capable rebels were already participating in the CIA’s covert arms program and committed to fighting the Assad regime rather than the Islamic State. Many of the remaining rebels available and willing to partner with the United States were refugees who had fled the battlefield. Deir al-Zour rebels could not be recruited in more than paltry numbers or unified under a single commander. In Syria’s north, the first batch of U.S.-trained rebels to enter the country in 2015 was almost immediately torn apart by Jabhat al-Nusrah. Notably, no other rebel factions intervened to protect them – it was Kurdish-led forces that came to their defense and then sheltered them. The second batch surrendered its U.S.-supplied weapons to Jabhat al-Nusrah. The Department of Defense counter-Islamic State program was amended to integrate small, Pentagon-trained units capable of calling in U.S. airstrikes into a larger mass of CIA-armed rebels, but even with substantial U.S. air support, rebels proved unable to do more than ping-pong back and forth across the Aleppo countryside until Turkey invaded.
Turkey’s own role inside Aleppo progressively scaled up over the course of Operation Euphrates Shield, until it had committed thousands of regular forces and taken the lead in the battle for the city of al-Bab. Even then, American and Western officials told me, the Turkish-led capture of al-Bab went poorly enough to push U.S. planners towards alternatives in the battle for al-Raqqa. By the time rebels who had already lost in Syria’s west were appealing for a role in the battles against the Islamic State in Raqqa and Deir al-Zour in 2017, it was too late.
The Long Black Thread, Before and After the Islamic State
The politically convenient timeline for the Islamic State’s incubation inside the Syrian opposition is short. It starts with the Islamic State’s announced entry in April 2013 and ends with its rupture with Syria’s rebels in January 2014, roughly nine months. But this too is a false narrative.
The reality is that the Syrian opposition’s entanglement with the Islamic State and jihadists broadly didn’t start in April 2013, and it didn’t end in January 2014. It’s not a single, bracketed episode. Rather, it is a black thread that’s run through the opposition almost from the start until the present day.
The Islamic State did not just appear from nothing in April 2013. Though it announced itself in 2013, its advance force — Jabhat al-Nusrah — and other future constituent parts were inside Syria and playing an active, leading role in the insurgency from the start of 2012. And even after the break with the Islamic State, its jihadist derivatives continued to poison the opposition. Again and again, the opposition — and the armed opposition in particular — proved unable to recognize the jihadist threat in their own ranks until it was too late.
From Jabhat al-Nusrah’s first acknowledged operation in Syria — a January 2012 car bomb in Damascus’s al-Meidan neighborhood — and the group’s video debut later that month, it should have been clear that it was either a manifestation of al-Qaeda or something al-Qaeda-like. But as Nusrah pivoted from terrorist bombings to a vanguard role on the battlefield alongside other rebels, it was accepted, only months after its terrorist opening act, as an integral part of the opposition. Important segments of the opposition went from denying al-Qaeda was even in Syria and claiming Nusrah’s early bombings were false flag attacks to closing ranks around an obvious al-Qaeda derivative.
In July of that year, the opposition stormed Aleppo, in their boldest, most ambitious blow against the regime to date. In the aftermath, Jabhat al-Nusrah was one of the four leading Islamist factions that came together in December 2012 to establish the Aleppo Shari’ah Commission, a joint judicial-administrative body to govern the city’s rebel-held east.
When the United States designated Jabhat al-Nusrah a terrorist organization and identified it, correctly, as an alias for al-Qaeda in Iraq, leading voices in Syria’s opposition loudly refused to acknowledge reality. The then-head of the opposition’s political leadership-in-exile said the decision “had to be reconsidered.” The following Friday, opposition activists organized protests across the country under the slogan, “There Is No Terrorism in Syria Except Assad’s.” It was only the announcement of the Islamic State in April 2013 that obliged Jabhat al-Nusrah — and everyone else — to acknowledge exactly what it was, forcing Nusrah to defensively pledge direct, public allegiance to al-Qaeda (Even then, armed opposition members argued to me, as late as 2016 and 2017, that Jabhat al-Nusrah wasn’t really al-Qaeda).
Between the April 2013 announcement of the Islamic State and the break with ISIL in January 2014, Syria’s rebels coexisted with ISIL and — though it’s true ISIL was never integrated into the mass rebellion the way Jabhat al-Nusrah was — operated alongside them on at least several fronts. The most prominent instance of rebel-ISIL cooperation was the 2013 capture of Aleppo’s Minagh Airbase, in which an ISIL suicide bomber cleared the way for a joint rebel assault. But rebels also seem to have fought alongside or in parallel with ISIL elsewhere, including in Lattakia, in the northern Damascus countryside, and against Kurdish forces across the Syrian north.
After ISIL was finally run out of Syria’s northwest in 2014 and concentrated in Syria’s east, the northwest became the rebellion’s center of gravity. It also became Jabhat al-Nusrah’s main power base, as the group rallied in the northwest starting in summer 2014. And when Jabhat al-Nusrah started to eliminate nationalist rivals, not unlike ISIL had, northern rebels again sat on their hands. Northern rebels suffered from the same weaknesses and contradictions that plagued rebels nationwide. They had limited, local horizons. They were divided by faction, geography, and individual personalities. And they had problematic ideological sympathies and interpersonal ties with jihadists. Altogether, they were incapable of mounting a collective resistance to a predatory Jabhat al-Nusrah. It is unclear how more U.S. support would have fixed that, particularly when the United States started targeting al-Qaeda external operations cells and Nusrah began targeting factions it deemed “Western tools.”
Jabhat al-Nusrah wiped out Jamal Ma’rouf’s ill-reputed Syrian Revolutionaries Front in October 2014, plus an assortment of Ma’rouf-linked factions. Other local factions, including Ahrar al-Sham, either joined in or were quietly complicit.
When CIA-backed Harakat Hazm tried to intervene to slow Nusrah’s campaign on Ma’arouf, Nusrah eliminated Hazm’s Idlib section. After escalating tensions between Nusrah and what was left of Hazm in Aleppo, Hazm defensively joined a larger Islamist faction. But Hazm kept causing problems, so its Islamist patron and other local factions decided Hazm had run its course. In February 2015, they stood aside while Nusrah snuffed it out.
Jabhat al-Nusrah was abetted in liquidating these factions by an ultra-extreme, Islamic State-leaning splinter called Jund al-Aqsa. Nusrah sheltered Jund al-Aqsa as it assassinated other rebels and — as what rebels called “[ISIL’s] Embassy in the North” — ferried would-be foreign fighters from Turkey to the Islamic State’s home base in al-Raqqa. When Ahrar al-Sham attempted to uproot Jund in late 2016, it suffered heavy losses and accepted a face-saving settlement brokered by Jabhat al-Nusrah. In February 2017, Jabhat al-Nusrah (by then renamed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) finally moved on what was left of Jund al-Aqsa — but, even then, Nusrah “defeated” Jund by giving its fighters safe passage to Islamic State-held Raqqa.
In March 2016, Nusrah broke a locally popular Free Syrian Army faction. In January 2017, it broke several factions that agreed to attend the Astana talks co-sponsored by Turkey, forcing the remaining fragments to join Ahrar al-Sham.
And in July 2017, Nusrah broke Ahrar al-Sham, its sole remaining rival for power in Syria’s northwest. Ahrar had historically been a key ally and enabler of Jabhat al-Nusrah, and it had played a central role in bringing the same extremist foreign fighters into Syria who would later repeatedly betray it. The dust has yet to fully settle, but it seems as if enough of Ahrar’s local subfactions stuck to their home areas — cutting deals to declare their towns neutral, or only running Nusrah out of their own sectors — that Nusrah was able to overwhelm Ahrar at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. Bab al-Hawa had been Ahrar’s stronghold and its main source of revenue and power. No longer.
The next-biggest rebel factions said they’d send a buffer force to interrupt the fighting around Bab al-Hawa, then didn’t, then blamed each other. One has already endorsed Jabhat al-Nusrah’s planned “civil administration” in the Syrian north.
CIA-backed Free Syrian Army factions played no part in the fighting between Nusrah and Ahrar al-Sham, except as a tame buffer force. The CIA had encouraged them to unite to form a counterweight to Jabhat al-Nusrah months earlier. They refused, recognizing, correctly, that Nusrah would view their unification as a menace and destroy them. Instead, they formed a nonthreatening “operations room” meant solely to fight the regime.
From 2012 to 2017, all these rebels continued to coordinate with and fight alongside Jabhat al-Nusrah. And the intra-rebel power dynamic had been inverted in ways outsiders seem to have misapprehended. By some point — certainly from 2015, but probably earlier — most northern rebels were not operating alongside either Jabhat al-Nusrah or Ahrar al-Sham as autonomous peers, but rather as jihadists’ fire support and force-multiplying auxiliaries. Nusrah was also siphoning off these factions’ U.S. material support, either by taking a regular cut or crushing these factions and pillaging their weapon stocks.
Lister has claimed that “[Free Syrian Army] groups who fought [al-Qaeda] were abandoned to lose.” But there’s only so much the United States could do when fragmented, basically local rebels abandoned each other, over and over again.
Syria’s northwest — which, as rebels lost more of Aleppo, became increasingly centered on Islamist- and jihadist-dominated Idlib province — has been the most extreme example nationwide of how jihadists have run roughshod over Syria’s opposition. But rebels nationwide suffered from the same flaws, only to lesser degrees. It’s those flaws that, even when they didn’t leave other rebels vulnerable to outright jihadist control, meant they also couldn’t really expunge pernicious extremist actors and tendencies.
The closest thing to an anti-jihadist success story has been the rebel southwest, where Jordan’s tight management of its northern border with Syria and of its local rebel clients seem to have kept Jabhat al-Nusrah from blossoming the way it did in Syria’s north. “Southern Front” rebels officially renounced cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusrah in 2015, and the group has apparently been kept mostly isolated and small. It also seems to have suffered because of one particularly bloodthirsty, unlikeable Jordanian emir, now since moved elsewhere in the country.
But even in the south, Jabhat al-Nusrah has survived, protected by its members’ local clan ties and their tactical utility to other rebels as shock troops, and it has continued to play a key role on hot fronts. There have been reports that local rebels have told Nusrah to either dissolve itself or leave the south, against the backdrop of the United States and Russia imposing a “de-escalation zone” over the area, but it remains to be seen how convincing rebels are and how willing Nusrah is to be convinced. Under the de-escalation agreement, southern rebels will likely have to fight the local Islamic State force that stubbornly holds the area’s valley corner and against which they have been unable to mobilize effectively.
The “Euphrates Shield” northern Aleppo countryside is mostly free of Jabhat al-Nusrah because of Nusrah’s 2015 withdrawal from the area, the presence of Turkish forces on the ground, and a geographic accident — this rebel enclave is disconnected from the Nusrah-dominated rebel northwest, and really from anything other than Turkey’s Gaziantep province. Still, there is some reason for concern. In June, dozens were reportedly killed in intra-rebel clashes that erupted — according to one party to the infighting — after one rogue rebel sub-faction starting chanting Nusrah slogans and then opened fire on residents who objected. And rebels have struggled to deal with continuing Islamic State infiltration. Local rebels told me in interviews that Islamic State cells in this area continue to commit acts of sabotage and carry out bombings.
In the besieged East Ghouta pocket outside Damascus, dominant local Islamist faction Jeish al-Islam eliminated the Islamic State in 2014 and, in 2016, turned its fire on Jabhat al-Nusrah. But that seemed to have as much to do with local factional balancing and economic interests as with anti-jihadist religious doctrine. And the rest of the Ghouta’s factions just balanced back, as Jabhat al-Nusrah opportunistically partnered with a local Free Syrian Army faction against Jeish al-Islam.
In terms of extremist influence and relative moderates’ inability to effectively organize against jihadists, Idlib and the rebel-held northwest have been the worst. But these are not Idlib problems; they are problems with Syria’s revolutionary opposition writ large.
This accounting of when Syria’s rebels did and did not resist jihadists is by no means a complete or comprehensive one. If someone wanted to get maximally granular — to dig down to the individual or village level — it’s probably possible to produce unlimited examples of rebels’ tangled-up relationships with jihadists.
The Assad regime itself had a hand in engineering jihadist influence within the opposition. From releasing dangerous jihadist detainees early in the uprising, apparently deliberately, to dumping rebels from elsewhere in the country into jihadist-dominated Idlib, Assad seems to have done everything he could to make his opposition toxic and unpalatable.
But Syria’s rebels themselves never really proved capable of policing themselves and purging their ranks of extremists. And by the time Trump had decided to end the CIA’s covert arms program, the geographic and numerical core of the armed opposition in Syria’s northwest was unsalvageable. It was dominated by factions like Ahrar al-Sham that were problematic, ideologically confused, and incapable of being productive counter-terrorism partners, and by Jabhat al-Nusrah, which is itself a counter-terrorism problem.
That meant rebels were never a really useful implement of U.S. or allied policy. So long as the most powerful factions espoused either Islamist, sectarian-majoritarian chauvinism, or straight black-flag jihadism, rebels could not represent an alternative political vision for a diverse Syria or be used effectively to press for a negotiated end to the conflict. The opposition also could not be a reliable counterterrorism partner, and support for opposition rebels was in fact boosting jihadists militarily and materially.
The conventional wisdom that the Syrian opposition was indispensable for counter-terrorism was a product of sentimentality and addled thinking. In particular, many opposition backers fell into a sort of over-reading of sectarian identity politics. They allowed themselves to be convinced that Syria’s jihadists had to be defeated by a force that looked basically like those jihadists, drawn exclusively from a demographic community defined in jihadists’ own sectarian terms.
One report called for America to stand up “the moderate Sunni Arab resistance needed to defeat the ISIS and al-Qaeda insurgencies,” a “partner by, with, and through which to conduct a population-centric counterinsurgency.” Another set of analysts and activists argued Washington needed to support Syrian opposition “indigenous counter-terrorism forces” in the most simplistic sectarian terms: “This counter-terrorism force needs to be led by moderate Sunni Arab fighters as Syria is a majority Sunni Arab country.”
This uncomplicated sectarian logic meant recommitting to a Syrian opposition force that had demonstrated consistently that it could not challenge jihadists and that, in any case, did not have a monopoly on Sunni Arab representation in Syria. Counting on the Syrian fighting force that, besides the Islamic State itself, was most riddled with jihadists to combat jihadists did not make sense.
And when rebels repeatedly made clear that their priority was fighting the Assad regime instead of jihadists, opposition backers rewrote their own interests and objectives to suit their clients’ needs. They tied themselves up in contortive logical knots to explain how, if they wanted to defeat jihadists, first they had to give the opposition everything it wanted.
These counter-terrorism-appropriate rationales for supporting the opposition should not have been taken seriously. The idea that Free Syrian Army rebels could somehow outcompete jihadists on the battlefield, or that they had to backfill and provide fire support for jihadists just to maintain their own independent relevance, was not real. The idea that opposition rebels, if delivered to victory or to a negotiated solution on their preferred, victorious terms, would then team with the Syrian military to eliminate their jihadist cousins and comrades-in-arms was similarly unreal. And finally, the idea that if the opposition won, jihadists would just demobilize and rejoin anything like a normal, safe society was also not real.
Take this section of Lister’s policy opus for War on the Rocks, in which he argued for a compulsory ceasefire and political transition imposed at the end of America’s superpower arsenal:
Assuming that the credible introduction of an enforcement mechanism did guarantee a more durable period of calm in Syria, the influence of extremist groups would almost certainly decline after a period of months. As that trend developed, the likelihood for tensions to develop between Syria’s mainstream opposition and extremists alongside them would rise, thereby presenting opportunities to encourage their isolation. Over an undeterminable period of time, this process could eventually “re-sort” insurgents, whereby all those willing to abide by a continued ceasefire and engage in an eventual political process would become more and more distinguishable from those who would not. It would only be after such a process played out that external military strikes could be considered against those unsalvageable extremists more clearly delineated on the ground.
“An undeterminable period of time” is a Syrian opposition-dictated fantasy, not policy.
There were non-counter-terrorism-related reasons to like and support the Syrian opposition. But as counter-terrorism gradually crowded out America and the West’s other priorities in Syria, the interests of the opposition terminally diverged from those of their Western backers, including the United States.
I don’t blame the opposition for these sorts of rationalizations, although we shouldn’t infantilize them or deny them agency, either. They certainly bear their share of responsibility. Still, as events turned against them, these arguments were all they had left.
I am angry at outsiders who affirmed and repeated these sorts of excuses, and particularly government officials and decision-makers. These people should have known better, and they should have communicated the political realities and consequences of the opposition’s extremist links clearly to their Syrian clients. They did the Syrian opposition, and Syrians broadly, a terrible disservice.
The opposition was not, with time, learning usefully, and its backers were not obliging it to learn. When rebels took Aleppo’s eastern half in summer 2012, lazily disguised Syrian al-Qaeda and other unacceptably hard factions assumed control of its governance. When rebels took Idlib in spring 2015, openly avowed Syrian al-Qaeda and other unacceptably hard factions assumed control of its governance, again. When rebels broke the siege of Aleppo in summer 2016, it was the same radioactive, jihadist-led coalition that blazed the path. The same patterns kept playing out, only more intense and worse, and still enabled by opposition sponsors.
In retrospect, optimism among rebel backers about the Jeish al-Fateh (Army of Conquest) coalition’s 2015 offensive in Syria’s northwest — channeled by The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, for example — seems to be where the opposition’s backers really worked themselves into peak delusion. It is mind-boggling that anyone was bullish about the political leverage to be gained from a provincial capital’s fall to a force jointly led by Ahrar al-Sham and al-Qaeda, which then blazed a path south into the regime’s sectarian heartland, massacring Alawite villagers and featuring their children in hostage videos.
The “al-Fateh” in Jeish al-Fateh literally means “open.” Historically, it connotes a Muslim army’s “opening” of new, non-Muslim lands to Islam. A Sunni-supremacist, foreign fighter-laden “Jeish al-Fateh” — reinforced by U.S.-supported Free Syrian Army factions — rampaging through the minority farming villages of Hama’s Ghab Valley should have been deeply alarming. It certainly seems to have alarmed Russia, which directly and decisively intervened in Syria on behalf of the regime months later.
Opposition backers probably should have figured this out. Instead, they repeated their opposition clients’ rationalizations and superstitions, which conveniently flattered those backers’ own policy preferences and analytical misapprehensions. The opposition’s state backers and friendly analysts did not take the problem of jihadist infiltration of the opposition seriously. And in part because they coddled the opposition instead of forcing a real, corrective reckoning, things got out of hand.
Ultimately, it fell on Trump to kill U.S. support for Syria’s opposition rebels and to state the obvious: “It turns out it’s — a lot of al-Qaida we’re giving these weapons to,” he told The Wall Street Journal last month.
Opposition backers’ magical thinking helped lead their clients into a dead end. But those foreign opposition boosters can at least disengage and walk away, even if they’ll feel some angst about it. It’s mainly the opposition itself — the admirable parts of it, and some good people who made mistakes — who are going to pay.
Sam Heller is a fellow at The Century Foundation and a Beirut-based writer and analyst focused on Syria. Follow Sam on Twitter: @AbuJamajem.
Image: Voice of America, CC