Reuters reports that since al-Qaeda in Syria has gravely weakened the nationalist rebels on the Northern Front, an effort is afoot to shift the focus for bolstering moderate insurrectionists to the south, namely Bashar az-Zoubi, his Liwa al-Yarmouk, and the wider “Southern Front”.
[The nationalist rebels’ in the south] plan, still unpublished but disclosed to Reuters, calls for turning the Southern Front rebels into a civilian security force. National institutions including the military would be safeguarded, and a technocratic interim authority would be set up to be followed by elections.
The plan emphasizes protection for all Syrians regardless of religious, cultural or ethnic affiliations …
It could be in line with thinking in Washington, where CNN reported Obama wants a policy review, realizing Islamic State may not be defeated without a transition and Assad’s removal.
Abu Hamza al-Qabouni, a rebel leader from Damascus and part of the Southern Front, said the group had decided to move ahead with a political plan because there was no longer any point waiting for the war to be resolved countrywide.
The only real snag is that the proposed authority sees itself as an alternative to the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), the recognised official political opposition. The fragmentation of the Syrian opposition, and the perception of same, has been among the given reasons for such minimal assistance to the rebellion, so this is potentially damaging. But a real, concrete governing authority inside Syria is likely perceived as worth the risk of damaging an SOC that, while it has recovered some standing this year, nonetheless lacks any real power.
There had been a plan earlier this year for a shift in focus by the rebellion’s external supporters to the south and the more tribally-based groups since the north was then seemingly so radicalized. That plan faltered for various reasons, and was in any case never meant to depose the regime, but rather to apply pressure for a political settlement. This likely would have led to an increase in violence, refugees, killing, and chaos—without a pay-off.
This option is now receiving another look since the northern moderates seem so debilitated. The nationalists rose against the Islamic State (I.S.), fought valiantly and successfully for months, drove the I.S. out of Latakia and Idlib entirely, most of Aleppo and large chunks of Deir Ezzor while fighting the I.S. in their “capital” in Raqqa. But the rebels were given no help and they were under-manned and under-equipped, as ever. 6,000 people had been killed in the fight with I.S. by May, and soon after, with the help of weaponry looted from Mosul, I.S. was able to reverse the tide against an exhausted rebellion.
The southern option is stronger but delay has (as usual) made the option worse. One side-effect of allowing I.S. to conquer the Eastern Front is that Jabhat an-Nusra was driven from its stronghold in Deir Ezzor and many of its fighters and senior leaders ended up in Deraa, where they are infiltrating local structures and spreading resources, winning over local supporters.
From the beginning, the moderate forces have had majority support but have been unable to weaponise this support, while the Salafists and jihadists have found ample resources flowing in their direction, and a well-armed minority trumps a disarmed majority every time.
It might be tempting to view the Nov. 2 rout of the nationalists in the north as the end of the moderates and the Nov. 6 U.S. airstrikes on Ahrar a-Sham as the end of U.S. influence, but fatalism has played too large a part in the Syria crisis already. Perhaps both of these things are true, but it will never be known unless a real effort is made to test the proposition.
If there was any seriousness about saving the Syrian people from the horrific choice the regime has worked to present them with, namely itself of the Salafi-jihadists, meaningful support would now begin, intended to re-establish the rebel strongholds in Idlib and expand them into Aleppo, and support would be provided to help the rebels in Deraa and the besieged enclave in East Ghouta challenge for Damascus. If it was really serious, these would-be Western allies, at least in the north, might even be protected with a no-fly zone.
As it is, however, this should not be expected. The leaks from senior Obama administration officials to CNN yesterday that they now see that destroying the Takfiri Caliphate requires getting rid of Assad are likely to prove to be another example of what Michael Doran calls the “Syria two-step“.
The Syria two-step is simple: When the political/media pressure on the administration for its neglect of the humanitarian and strategic catastrophe in Syria gets too much, it promises it really is getting serious this time in supporting the nationalist rebels, and then it does nothing.
We saw this in June 2013 when Obama finally admitted chemical weapons (CW) had been used by the regime and promised to extend lethal support to the rebellion, and then never did. We saw it in August/September 2013 after the massive CW attack in Ghouta when the President promised to punish Assad militarily and then stood down under the obfuscation of the Russian-orchestrated CW “deal”. In May at West Point, Obama promised to “ramp-up” support for rebels with this $500m program; this was sent to Congress without instruction, got stuck in committee, and now Obama blames Congress for the delay in support to the rebellion.
Behind the stand-down last August was an imperative not to annoy Iran, the occupying power in regime-held areas. Obama was holding secret talks with Iran on nuclear weapons; a tacit condition of the “interim” deal in November was an Iranian free-hand in Syria.
This is part of a larger Obama policy of detente with Iran, the hope to end the long stand-off between the U.S. and Tehran, and create a “balance” in the region between America’s traditional allies and Iran, which allows the U.S. to pull out. Such a policy axiomatically means empowering Iran since it’s starting point was weaker, and one of the ways this is done is by ceding Syria to Iran as a sphere of influence.
A viable U.S.-underwritten force that could defeat both the Salafi-jihadists and Iran’s proxies—both the regime and the Khomeini’ist jihadists propping it up—is therefore out of the question. If the nationalist rebels are allowed to wither, the administration can claim it had no choice but to side with Iran to counter the Islamic State’s “Jihadistan”.
UPDATE (13 NOV 2014): As expected, this soon unravelled. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel flatly denied the CNN report, saying that both the Iraq-first and I.S.-first focus of the Obama administration’s “policy” remained in place.
UPDATE 2 (16 NOV 2014): To remove all doubt, President Obama himself made clear that Assad was going nowhere at the G-20 in Brisbane. Asked directly, “[A]re you actively discussing ways to remove [Assad] as a part of [a] political transition,” Obama answered simply and bluntly, “No.”