LAST week I was in Syria, on a fact-finding mission for a Syrian opposition group.
The short drive through a peaceful countryside of orchards and fields, the cool breeze and sunshine made it hard to imagine the realities of civil war. As we approached the city of Azaz however, the stench and smoke of burning tyres filled the air and the bomb craters and destruction were all around. We saw families on their way to the border, being escorted to Turkish refugee camps by men who would then return to the fighting.
Against all predictions, there are now tens of thousands of Hezbollah and al-Qaeda fighters in Syria, waging war against president Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime and also the moderates who hope to establish a secular democracy in Syria.
Syrians have traditionally been cosmopolitan and moderate, so the presence of large numbers of battle-hardened jihadists from Afghanistan and Iraq and adventurous fanatics from Europe and Britain is being tolerated only for the firepower they bring to the cause of freedom.
Syria today is a complete failure of US policy.
I visited refugee camps in Gaziantep and crossed the border at Kilis in Turkey. We drove to Azaz in the hope of getting to the front-line city of Aleppo during a fragile ceasefire for a prisoner exchange. It is ironic that the US has spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives over ten years to rid Afghanistan and Iraq of al-Qaeda only to let al-Qaeda establish itself in Syria.
Al-Qaeda in Syria is well funded and young militants are flocking to join the cause as Syria is so much more accessible than, for example, Somalia or Yemen. According to an MI5 officer I spoke to young zealots, mainly from the UK, can catch a flight from London to Beirut for £200. It is widely known that the extremists have little cause with the Syrian nation but are seeking to establish an Islamic emirate based on sharia law to be linked with Iraq, in advance of a worldwide caliphate.
The growing strength of the extremist factions has taken the US by surprise. The al-Qaeda forces in Syria have evolved into a coalition dominated by Isis, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, formerly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. The al-Qaeda factions have the monopoly on credibility right now with their advanced weapons, training and experience and funding from Iraq.
Isis has learned from the mistakes made by its Iraqi predecessors and is trying not to alienate the local population. It is providing food, clinics and even entertainment to win the hearts and minds of locals, including children, to ensure its status in desperately needy communities. However, extremist elements in some areas are also eroding goodwill because of their insistence on harsh sharia judgments.
The US still has time to support the moderates as the secular democratic movement that started the civil war is still alive. Time is running out however, as the Free Syrian Army feels increasingly isolated, underfunded and betrayed by the West. The arms the US promised have been slow to reach them while the chemical weapons accord between the US and Russia has brought about a delay in pursuing the civil war to the next level. In hindsight, the proposed punitive strikes on Syrian airfields and supply routes could have encouraged the opposition and further isolated the Assad regime. As it stands now, while the destruction of chemical weapons is welcomed, a window of opportunity has been given to al-Qaeda in Syria to build in confidence.
The US should use this window to build the opposition. There exists resentment between those fighting in Syria and the exiles in the West trying to form a government in waiting. The US and the West must support the FSA to prevent further misunderstanding. There seems to be little will in the West for dislodging the Assad regime by military action. The solution is to give the opposition the means to take gradual control.
The US should encourage détente to a point where Iran is no longer spending an estimated $500 million a month to keep Assad’s regime afloat. Russia and Hezbollah are continuing to supply Syria with diplomatic cover, munitions and seasoned fighters. The US should be pursuing Russia to end its support and at the same time encouraging the United Nations to play a more effective role.
Without this support, Assad could have been defeated by now, as the rebels had early successes in 2011 and 2012. FSA forces should be increased by recruiting and training thousands more fighters to curtail the influence of al-Qaeda. The US is still hesitant about supplying arms to the FSA in case they fall into “the wrong hands” – but effective border discipline and accountability can be established and FSA leaders are willing to cooperate. Currently, the FSA is “only as strong as its international backers allow it to be”.
Our visit to Aleppo was cut short when we learned that the ceasefire had just ended. We followed the stream of refugees back to the Turkish border, where we heard the news that extreme Islamist factions had just announced they were no longer allied to the FSA.
The new alliance of 13 factions including foreign al-Qaeda-type jihadists, such as the al-Tawheed Brigade, and Jabhat al-Nusra, can be seen as a blunt rejection of the western-backed opposition Syrian National Coalition. However, a recent study by IHS Jane’s analyst Charles Lister estimates that there are as many as 1,000 rebel groups in Syria, with some 100,000 fighters. Dissension is inevitable and the fragmentation of the armed opposition nothing new. While the recent breakaway may cause disquiet, it can also be seen as a positive reaction to the backlash against al-Qaeda’s presence in Syria.
Washington should welcome this split between the al-Qaeda jihadists and the moderate opposition and seize the moment to build the FSA into an effective force. The short-sightedness of US policies to date has produced the terrible situation in Syria and the US hopefully still has time to catch up.
Syria’s near neighbours also need to know there is an end in sight that does not involve a prolonged proxy war and a chaotic partitioned Syria. As Michael Weiss wrote in a recent Foreign Policy article: “[Barack] Obama never needed to go searching for a coalition of the willing for Syria; one comes pre-assembled for him and has been knocking, in fact, at the door of the Oval Office for quite some time. Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, all see Syria as a grave short-term threat to their national security.”
With this “coalition of the willing,” surely Obama will seize the moment and pursue the middle way of supporting the moderate rebels with arms while pursuing diplomatic solutions. After personally witnessing the effects of the civil war, I can only hope democracy will prevail. The big question is when and how many more must die meantime.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is executive chairman of the Scotland Institute, Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a lecturer at the University of Chicago.