A Pentagon plan to aid Syrian rebels is emerging as far smaller than advocates hoped, ramping up slowly over an extended period while offering no quick support to moderate fighters, who are losing ground both to the Assad regime and to jihadists, the Wall Street Journal reports:
President Barack Obama promised in May to work with Congress to raise support for the moderates. But critics inside and outside the administration say the limited steps he is taking are too modest to make a difference on the battlefield, reflecting his own and the Pentagon’s reluctance to get entrenched in another Middle East conflict.
Opposition leaders have issued increasingly dire warning to the administration in recent weeks that moderate forces were under siege in key areas and could be routed in their Aleppo stronghold without more rapid support from the U.S. “We’re losing ground every day,” said Aiad Koudsi, deputy prime minister of the opposition Syrian interim-government……
At a congressional hearing on Wednesday, senior Pentagon officials offered few details about the proposed train-and-equip program, prompting a rebuke from Rep. Adam Smith, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
“If the White House is going to push a policy like this, they have got to…push the policy,” Mr. Smith said. “For the United States Congress to vote to authorize a train and equip mission for a rebel force is a big damn deal. I think it is something we ought to do but…sell it. If you don’t, there is no way we are going to pass it.”
“Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declared victory over those who had sought to overthrow him as he embarked Wednesday on a third term in office, buoyed by a growing extremist threat to the region that has helped cement his hold on power,” the Washington Post reports:
With jihadists rampaging across neighboring Iraq and the focus of Western powers shifting toward the containment of terrorism, a confident Assad made it clear that he no longer perceives a challenge to his 14-year-old presidency, now extended by seven more years after he won a tightly controlled election last month.
“Containing the spread of ISIS and other jihadists in the region is the priority for the White House now,” said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Assad’s new regime is seen as a more distant problem,” he tells the Washington Post:
Assad also pledged to recapture the northern city of Aleppo, a strategic prize from which more-moderate rebels have been squeezed in recent months by a sustained government onslaught. Rebel control of pockets of territory elsewhere in the country poses no direct threat to his rule.
“There’s a sense of confidence that he is already past the worst and looking ahead to the future,” said Yezid Sayigh of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center. “The regime has had reason to be confident for quite a while. They’ve been making slow but steady gains on key fronts for a long while.”
Dictators can play the devil’s gambit: winning international sympathy by deliberately radicalizing regime opponents, argues Dominic Tierney an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War:
How does the devil’s gambit work? The goal is to make the opposition appear even more threatening than the regime. If you’re a despot like Assad, this is no easy feat. For one thing, Damascus has an appalling human-rights record, and a list of allies that reads like the Axis of Evil, 2014 edition, including Iran and Hezbollah.
Even Assad’s enemies are rethinking their strategy, he writes for The Atlantic:
European countries worry about the thousands of Europeans who have traveled to Syria to fight Assad—and their potential return as violent militants. Meanwhile, the United States has dispatched hundreds of advisors to join the battle against ISIS in Iraq. Members of the Obama administration are backing away from the goal of toppling Assad. “Anyone calling for regime change in Syria,” said one official, “is frankly blind to the past decade; and the collapse of eastern Syria, and growth of Jihadistan, leading to 30 to 50 suicide attacks a month in Iraq.”
“The devil’s gambit is a chancy maneuver, since the resulting radicals could grow too powerful to control,” Tierney contends. “For a dictator, the sweet spot is an extremist force that’s strong enough to inspire fear abroad, but not capable enough to topple the regime—which is roughly where ISIS is right now. If the militants become too potent, Assad will probably turn on them with a vengeance.”