Obama’s Legacy in Syria — A Shattered Country and a Looming Victory for Assad
The Free Syrian Army got stomped and so did the revolution
by KEVIN KNODELL
The Syrian revolution began with dreams of democracy and progress. Today it’s a nightmare of despotism and extremism. When Syrian troops began firing on pro-democracy demonstrators in Damascus in early 2011, it became clear that it wouldn’t be a bloodless revolution.
As the regime of Pres. Bashar Al Assad began cracking down with greater violence, Syrians began taking up arms and fighting back. Today, the failed revolution has become a convoluted civil war that involves Western countries, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, Russia, Iran and countless militias and rebel groups.
America has struggled to find allies on the ground to work with — there’s a trust deficit, to say the least. Much of the reason why goes back to a fateful decision by former U.S. Pres. Barack Obama. When Syrian revolutionaries most needed America’s help, he backed down at the last minute.
It’s something that many Syrians will never forget. And it set in motion a series of horrible events that America — and the world — will likely have to reckon with for years. In the immediate future, America’s Syria policy will be Pres. Donald Trump’s responsibility.
As he enters the fray, a history lesson may be in order.
Early in the civil war, many of Syria’s disparate opposition factions nominally united into an ideologically-diverse coalition called the Free Syrian Army.
Many of the FSA’s constituent armed groups were secularist and favored a democratic government. Some were leftist, and others had in mind an enthusiastic, market-driven future. Others were various flavors of Islamist — ranging from moderates who still wanted democratic reforms and a coalition government to fundamentalists favoring an authoritarian Islamic state.
But they all agreed on one thing — Assad had to go.
A portion of the rebels were military deserters who refused orders to fire on their own people. In addition to depriving Assad’s army of troops, when these defectors joined the revolution they brought weapons, trained fellow rebels and provided organization to the FSA. It emerged as a significant military threat to the Syrian regime.
In order to fight back, Assad called upon his ally Iran for help. Tehran brought in troops, as well as proxy militias from Iraq and Lebanon — most notably the Lebanese militia Hezbollah — to bolster the Syrian Arab Army and maintain Assad’s weakening grip on power.
Incoming U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis served as the commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees all U.S. forces in the Middle East, when the revolution began. During remarks at the 2013 Aspen Institute Conference shortly after his retirement, Mattis asserted that if not for Tehran’s intervention the opposition would have likely overthrown Assad early on.
Throughout the war, the United States vocally condemned the regime’s bombings of population centers while calling on Assad to step down. The FSA took this as an early sign of support, but they hoped for more.
Eventually, the United States agreed to provide the rebels with non-lethal aid — but wouldn’t go so far as to provide weapons. The rebels were fighting hard, but struggled against stiffening resistance from Iran’s proxies and the regime’s tanks and warplanes.
FSA rebels soon pushed into Syria’s coastal Latakia province in northwestern Syria, Assad’s birthplace and what remains a regime stronghold due to its large Alawite population. The FSA believed that capturing Latakia would deliver a major blow to Assad — although the odds were exceedingly poor.
In early August 2013, rebel fighters seized several Latakia towns. The FSA expected the regime to counterattack following a push into Latakia — likely by unleashing warplanes and tanks. However, the rebels weren’t equipped to fight either in a meaningful way.
On Aug. 21, 2013, nearly three years into the war, the regime crossed that line with a chemical strike on the outskirts of Damascus in Ghouta that killed hundreds. Prior to the attack, Obama had sternly told the Syrian regime that if it were to deploy its chemical weapons stocks the United States would be forced to intervene directly.
He called it the “red line” that America could not allow to be crossed. Well, Assad did.
The rebels were optimistic at what seemed to be the imminent arrival of Western air support. They had seen the way air support helped turn the tide for Libyan rebels in their fight against their own dictator.
Then on Aug. 31, Obama made the surprising announcement that he would seek Congress’ approval for strikes before backing the offensive — a process that could take months if he even received authorization. The same day, the French military had fueled up its jets and had weapons payloads ready for immediate deployment. French Pres. Francois Hollande ordered them to stand down when he learned that the Americans weren’t going to strike.
Following Obama’s announcement, the rebels knew they were going to have to fight without U.S. warplanes in the air. They had made a series risky moves and prepped for a major offensive with the assumption they would soon receive air support — only for the Americans to leave them holding the bag.
The Obama administration then cut a deal with the Russian government, in which the Kremlin agreed to take control of Assad’s chemical weapons to ensure they wouldn’t be used in the conflict. John Kerry, the U.S. secretary state, would later blame the British parliament’s vote against intervening in Syria for Obama’s decision not to strike.
Syrian tanks and warplanes decimated the FSA. Many of the revolutionaries felt disillusioned — and betrayed.
“Obama’s backing down was harder for the Syrian people than the regime’s use of chemical weapons,” Mohamed Moustafa, a Syrian who helped distribute non-lethal U.S. aid to rebel groups, told War Is Boring after the FSA’s disastrous losses.
The FSA never really recovered. With secular democratic groups being the hardest hit, more radical elements of the opposition seized the momentum. Radical Islamist groups such the Islamic State and Al Qaeda — at that time still allies — saw an opportunity to take advantage of the disarray.
The spread of hardline Islamist groups also rebounded to the benefit of the Syrian government. Early into the revolution, regime officials selectively released Islamist prisoners as a means of radicalizing members of the pro-democratic opposition.
As a result, the Syrian government could more effectively appeal for international support and portray the civil war as a struggle against terrorism.
Many viewed such allegations with a degree of skepticism, but a three part investigation published at The Daily Beast conducted by veteran correspondent Roy Gutman confirmed much of the story. Former regime insiders who had fled the country told Gutman how they had personally overseen the initiative. Bafflingly, many of the defectors said they were never debriefed by U.S. intelligence officials.
Abu Arif, a fighter with the Free Syrian Army’s Sham Falcons Brigade who had taken part in pro-democracy rallies in Damascus, was there when the regime opened fire on demonstrators. He later told War Is Boring that he distrusted Islamist groups — the Islamic State in particular — because they included significant numbers of foreign fighters.
Arif saw them as outsiders who could try to take over Syria. Nevertheless, he said the brigade occasionally worked with them to fight Assad. However, that relationship changed drastically on Sept. 12, 2013. The Islamic State and Al Qaeda declared war on the FSA.
On Sept. 18, Islamist forces attacked FSA fighters in Azaz, a town on the outskirts of Aleppo.
“The firefight began when ISIS tried to kidnap a German doctor working in an Azaz hospital with Doctors Without Borders,” the Syrian Support Group reported. “Fighters protecting the doctor refused to allow him to be taken. ISIS then began shooting, and the fighting spread throughout the town in short measure.”
The Islamic State had already developed a special reputation for barbarity that horrified even other radical jihadists fighting in Syria. By February 2014, simmering tensions between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State finally led to a split and they began fighting against each other as well.
Through 2014, the Islamic State expanded operations into Iraq, culminating in the fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June. The group’s genocidal campaign against the Yazidi people finally prompted a U.S. air campaign, first in Iraq and then in Syria.
But the American effort was limited to just fighting the Islamic State and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Fateh Al Sham — not against Assad. Syrian rebels could receive U.S. backing if they agreed to fight the Islamic State — but not the regime. Many Syrian rebels were exasperated.
Life in Islamic State territory is terrible, and many Syrians want to see the group defeated. But despite the horrific nature of the Islamists’ crimes, far more Syrian civilians have died at the hands of the Assad regime and their Iranian and Russian allies. From these rebels’ perspective, Assad poses the most immediate threat to them and their families. The same dynamic is also true, of course, in reverse.
As a result, several Syrian fighters put down the banner of the FSA — an organization that had never had much support — for extremist groups which benefited from financiers in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Aligning with these groups wasn’t about ideology — it was surviving the fight against the regime, the Iranians and the Russians.
However, the fact that Islamist fighters have emerged as major players in so many corners of Syria means that a significant portion of the dwindling moderate and secular rebels have fought alongside them at various points — either out of expediency or necessity. This creates a major problem for U.S. troops tasked with vetting and training rebels, as it’s hard to know which ones fought alongside extremists for survival and which ones align with them ideologically.
Meanwhile, Damascus and Moscow have taken advantage of these complications to portray their war effort as a crusade against terrorism and religious extremism.
The Syrian and Russian militaries have indeed fought the Islamic State, but have directed the lion’s share of their firepower toward other opposition groups while, at the same time, characterizing them as extremists as a whole.
This dynamic was on full display during the siege of Aleppo. Islamist factions undoubtedly controlled significant portions of the city, but other rebel groups were known to clash with them. Russian state-owned media also falsely described air strikes on medical centers and relief workers as attacks on radical jihadists.
Most of the actual fighting in Syria against the Islamic State has been undertaken by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Kurdish fighters and Arabs from Free Syrian Army remnants supported by a cadre of Western advisers.
The Arab rebels are deeply opposed to Assad, as are many of the Kurdish fighters, although relations between Syria’s Kurds and the regime is more complicated. The SDF and pro-government forces have largely stayed out of each other’s way, and most of the SDF’s territory is separated from regime-controlled areas by the Islamic State.
There’s no guarantee the SDF and the Assadists will remain on neutral terms. But it’s hard to foresee a scenario, at this point, in which the United States will fight alongside the SDF to oust Assad — supported by Russian warplanes and commandos — and establish a democratic government.
In December 2016, Syrian troops with Russian air support crushed the remaining rebel neighborhoods in Aleppo, which was once Syria’s largest city. Assad declared it to be a historic victory. He had broken the back of the resistance and seemingly solidified his grip on power.
However, it’s a Pyrrhic victory.
Assad’s response to what was — once — a peaceful revolution was to burn the country to the ground. Syria’s infrastructure is demolished. Its economy is destroyed. Much of its cultural sites — ancient cities important to human history as a whole — have been ravaged. People are starving. The Syrian army, now decimated, has been replaced with warlords and militias that rule their own fiefdoms while paying tribute to Damascus or Tehran.
And millions of Syrians, sick of it all, have left the country.
The United Nations currently numbers Syrian refugees at 4,863,684 worldwide, not including the untold number of internally displaced people left behind inside the country. Many are languishing in refugee camps and trying to make a living. Many are trying to get their children through school. Syria boasts a relatively high literacy rate, something the next generation may not share with their parents.
Some of the lucky ones have made it to Western countries. Those fortunate to have done so have resettled into their new communities relatively successfully. Despite fears that many of them could be extremists, many have actually openly condemned Islamist preachers who lived in the West since before their arrival.
Iran and Hezbollah have also capitalized on the displacement. They’re trying their hands at demographic engineering by repopulating areas of Syria vacated by Sunni Arab refugees with new Shia residents — some from other parts of Syria and even from Iraq and Lebanon.
It’s possible that if Obama had entered the war back in August 2013, things may have turned out very differently. But American public opinion at the time did not favor an intervention, and Obama was still attempting to reduce the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan. America was weary of war, and Obama decided he wasn’t going to rush into another one.
Unfortunately, he’d spent the duration of the Syrian revolution to that point vocally supporting Syrian activists and condemning the regime — a regime that had just crossed the line in the sand he’d drawn, while blowing his credibility with Syrians who had bet on an American intervention.
Trump is unlikely to regain that trust. He has championed closer ties with the Assad regime and Russia, though has conveniently side-stepped addressing both countries’ close relationships with Iran — a nation he’s promised to approach with a harder line.
Trump has also called Syrian refugees — driven from their homes by both Assad and the Islamic State — terrorists in disguise, calling for them to be barred from America and other Western nations. Additionally, Trump pledged to expel any Syrian refugees currently in America.
If Trump were to have his way, America will have not only have sold out Syrians to a dictator backed by Russia and Iran, the leader of the free world would be aligning with the very same dictator to wage a war that started as an attempt to suppress a peaceful cry for democracy and dignity — while demonizing the refugees it created.
It would make the betrayal of the Syrian revolution full circle. History is sometimes punctuated by cruel irony.