Syria: Where is the Moderate Opposition?

If you were to ask a handful of journalists “What is the moderate opposition in Syria?” you would be left with a handful of answers and more than a handful of questions. The difficulty in defining the “moderate opposition” stems from the fact that the Syrian rebel forces, including the Free Syrian Army and the Syria National Coalition, encompass various political groups with their own ideologies. These ideologies range from relatively secular, embodied by groups like the Coalition of Secular and Democratic Syrians and the Syrian Democratic People’s Party, to very radical, characterized by organizations such as Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaeda affiliated Al-nusra Front. Given that these opposition groups shape their ideologies in relation to each other, it is unclear how one is to go about conceptualizing the ideal “moderate” force on the spectrum of secular to radical defined by the circumstances of the conflict. This lack of clarity in defining the “moderate” opposition is compounded by the fact that there isn’t any single group that wields legitimate or temporary military authority over the others. As such, the ideologies of each organization will have a high degree of evolutionary independence to each other. This climate of various independent ideologies among the rebel groups makes both defining and conceptualizing the ideal “moderate” opposition in Syria virtually impossible.

The US attempted to form a “moderate opposition”in Syria through the National Defense Authorization Act, which allocated half a billion dollars to facilitate the venting and training of “moderate” individuals to fight ISIS and Assad. Although creative in outlook, this plan ultimately failed because of its improper conception. There were few benchmarks for evaluating potential fighters and even fewer provisions to examine the feasibility of such a force. This policy measure produced a grand total of five foreign fighters after the others were killed, captured, or relinquished their weapons to ISIS.  Instead of reevaluating the effectiveness of this bill in light of such a catastrophic failure, another National Defense Authorization Act was put on the president’s table for 2016, which authorizes $600 million to fund the training of “moderate” rebels yet again. This cash in strategy to solve the Syrian crisis – which, on the contrary, has failed to effectively combat the crisis – demonstrates the need for more creative, effective policy measures that avoid negligent spending of US tax payer dollars and help to establish moderate indigenous elements in the region. Without doing so, these expedited funding programs will inevitably lead to the proliferation of radicalism in Syria.

These futile efforts to define and form a moderate opposition in Syria have resulted in some political commentators with wholly different conceptions of what the term “moderate”really means in the context of the Syrian conflict. One commentator, Jason Hirthler views the notion of the moderate opposition as “invented” by Washington to justify its support for jihadists fighting against the Assad regime in Syria. In this regard, the “moderate opposition” can be viewed more appropriately as groups of mercenaries hired and paid for by the United States to topple the Syrian regime. Over the summer, the Pentagon verified this claim saying that Syrian rebels trained to fight ISIS are paid $250 to $400 per month, depending on their skills, performance and leadership position.”  Whether US funding extends to other rebel opposition groups is uncertain, but what is becoming more evident is the fact that the free Syrian Army doesn’t represent anybody in Syria. Moreover the inherent ambiguity in how ‘moderate’ is defined highlights the need for a greater examination of what constitutes moderate forces in Syria and how the ideologies of these groups can be better articulated. Without such an articulation, the term ‘moderate’ as a characterization of rebel forces only serves to justify continued US spending to failed programs and further support of groups that are just as bad as the current Syrian regime.

Continuing efforts to support and create a “moderate”opposition in Syria are attributed to a contradictory foreign policy agenda in the region. The US is fighting Assad, ISIL, and anti-Assad Jihadi groups while supporting a handful of “moderates”in the Syrian Free Army and backing the Shia government in Iraq. In doing so, the US has established a stance against Sunni militants in Iraq while at the same time fighting alongside these same militants in Syria to topple the Assad regime. Adding to this confusion is the fact that America condemns radical militant groups in Syria, such as the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, while also recognizing that such radical groups are essential components in the fight against Assad. America’s strategic incoherence in the region has resulted in its support for a small number of groups fighting for control of Damascus, many of whose ideologies are not clear. This ambiguity concerning the ideologies of Syrian opposition forces makes the end goal of establishing a secular Syria largely overlooked, especially as the question of “Who is radical in Syria?” has taken a back seat to the more important question of “Who is willing to fight Assad?”.

The Syrian moderate forces have always been something of a fantasy to many foreign analysts given the historical precedence of similar failed efforts to form opposition forces by America and UN allies in Libya, Iraq and Yemen. Forming a moderate opposition requires not only substantial amounts of money, but also long-term oversight allowing effective control over the actions and equipment of these ‘moderate’ forces.  Without such oversight, weapons and operational equipment will inevitably fall into the hands of radical groups fighting alongside moderate Syrian forces. Adding to this, the countries considered to be viable training grounds for moderate forces, like Saudi Arabia, have their own agendas regarding Syria that ignore the implications of the growing presence of radicalism in the region. This increase in radicalism can be partly attributed to the introduction of ISIL and Russian forces, both of which threaten to push more moderate rebel forces into the folds of fundamentalist groups. All of these factors make the creation of a moderate opposition force in Syria seem more like a “miracle cure that Americans dream up when we come to a section of the world we can’t manage” as President Obama said in an interview with Thomas Friedman over a year ago.

The geopolitical complexity of Syria will require substantial international collaboration to resolve and will be contingent on a compromise that may involve partitioning the nation after a ceasefire is achieved or some other political reorganization of power is decided. More than anything, a reassessment of American strategy is needed in the region before any attempts are made to form a moderate opposition against Assad and ISIL. This may involve the US focusing more attention on fighting ISIL rather than supporting rebels against the powerful Russian-backed Assad regime. More importantly, it might involve making the even more critical decision to end support for the Syrian rebels and to allow the Assad regime to stay in power. This would prevent any further escalation of conflict in the region and might even allow the US to transfer the responsibility of fighting ISIL to Russia. It would also show that even though the US couldn’t form a moderate opposition in the region, it can at least take the path of moderation to end conflict in the region.

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