Assad’s devil’s gambit pays off? U.S. plans ‘small’ training program for Syrian moderates


syriacoalitionA 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.”


MidEast ‘sectarian entrepreneurs’ mask lust for power

The conflict convulsing Syria and Iraq, and bursting regional borders, is being likened to a religious war, similar to the Thirty Years War that devastated Europe in the first half of the 17th century. Yet this does not quite ring true, argues analyst David Gardner.

“The warriors of the new caliphate – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant which, intoxicated with sudden success, has self-distilled into the Islamic State – are, in theological terms, painting by numbers,” he writes in the Financial Times:

Such legitimacy as they have in their jihadistan is ephemeral, leeched from collapsing unitary states with oppressive rulers who have driven the Sunni masses temporarily into their bloodstained arms. ….This is not so much a war of religion as a struggle for power bespattering the region, in which rival Islamic identities – Sunni and Shia – have replaced nationalism as the mobilising agent, and the states with most interest in the outcome, Saudi Arabia and Iran, have (to paraphrase Shakespeare) cried havoc and let slip the dogs of sectarianism.

Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, argues that “there is actually no theological debate in this religious war.” “It’s fundamentally, as always, a fight for political power”.

The current conflicts have unleashed what Charles Tripp, the Iraq scholar, calls “sectarian entrepreneurs,” Gardner adds:

When governments and oppositions – and states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia that back them – play the sectarian card, this prevents popular grievances becoming a dispute between haves and have-nots, or about access to power and opportunity. Would-be citizens who might seek common institutions to arbitrate their interests are instead faced with the hard-wiring of sectarian affiliation and subconscious grammar of tribal loyalty, which spills across the Syrian and Iraqi borders into Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Jihadi totalitarianism

Isis fastened on to the Sunni power networks of Saddam’s army and Ba’ath party, supposedly dismantled by the US-led occupation, and the tribes, hostile to jihadi totalitarianism but now more aggrieved by the Maliki government. While sectarianism is not religion, it does have the power to resurrect the zombie ideologies of Osama bin Laden and the Ba’ath – and even get them to work together.

“If this is a thirty years war, it resembles more the convulsion of Europe between 1914 and 1944: not competing nationalisms but still a clash of aggrieved – in this case, sectarian – identities, in a common space they cannot agree to share amid yearning after past glory: a reich then, a caliphate now,” Gardner suggests.

His argument is echoes by Daniel Benjamin, director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth, who contends that the strife in Iraq today is “less the mystifying product of primordial grievances than the predictable result of modern power politics.”

“There is indeed plenty of bad blood between Sunnis and Shiites. But today’s sectarian rifts in Iraq and the wider region are the result of calculated efforts over many years by modern states—above all, Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia,” he writes for the Wall Street Journal:

So to find the spark that lighted the fires of 2014, don’t look back to the seventh century. Look to 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers toppled the shah and installed a theocratic government unprecedented in the history of Shiism. Iran sought to expand its influence by creating terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and stirring Shiite ambitions in Bahrain, Iraq and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.

The Saudi monarchy saw its religious leadership of the Muslim world challenged. The kingdom poured hundreds of millions of dollars into building mosques and schools, established huge organizations that propagated its puritanical brand of Sunni Islam and flooded the Muslim world with textbooks depicting Shiites as heretics and Christians and Jews as subhuman. The same poisonous springs that nourished the kingdom’s sectarian counterrevolution would later help bring forth al Qaeda and its offshoots.


Across the region, the resurgence of Sunni-Shiite sectarian hostilities has followed a pattern, David D. Kirkpatrick writes for the New York Times:

The weakening of the old states leads anxious citizens to fall back on sectarian identity, while insecure rulers surround themselves with loyalists from their clans and denominations, systematically alienating others, often on sectarian lines. In the case of U.S. allies like Bahrain and Iraq, analysts say, the United States and other Western powers turned a blind eye to the excesses and sectarianism of rulers they supported.

Hammering on those internal cracks, the region’s two geopolitical heavyweights, the Shiite theocracy in Iran and the Sunni monarchy in Saudi Arabia, have sought to protect their interests and influence by funneling support to clerics, satellite networks, political factions and armed groups squaring off along sectarian lines.

“Great powers gravitate to clients they can support,” said Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a scholar of the region.

Saudi Arabia and Iran, he said, each employ a sectarian foreign policy to pursue classically secular objectives. “They play the game of great power politics and the chess pieces they choose inflame the sectarianism,” he said….

Citing such conflicting entanglements, conspiracy theorists in the Arab media now often suggest that Washington may welcome the sectarian mayhem.

“It is becoming the dominant narrative,” said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Who is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?

“He has emerged out of 10 years in occupation in Iraq. He is very intelligent and now represents a phenomenon where he merges all the tools of political Islam with all the tools of Al-Qaeda,” says Laith Kubba, the director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Endowment of Democracy.

“Baghdadi is not just someone who is a basic politician or ideologue nor violent like a member of Al-Qaeda but a hybrid of both. And within a very short period of time, he has not only demonstrated leadership skills, but he has a vision and is acting on it,” he tells Al-Jazeera:

Baghdadi declared a caliphate, and anyone who knows theology and the background would realize that this declaration, according to traditional fiqh, puts an obligation of anyone who is religiously observant to declare allegiance. There hasn’t been a caliph for 100 years, the last one was during the Ottoman Empire. Even Saudi Arabia doesn’t declare themselves a caliph. No one does. 

Baghdadi has delivered, changing the name from the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant to the Islamic State. Declaring himself a caliph and asking people to pledge allegiance. We are not only looking at a person, which is very important, but more important, the message and what he delivers in a very short period of time is beginning to concern people.

“There will be thousands of people joining him as either fighters or sending him money,” says Kubba, who has had extensive involvement in Iraqi politics, including in 2005 being a senior adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and a spokesman for the Iraqi government. From 1993 to 1998, he was the director of international relations at Al-Khoei Foundation in London.


ISIS released a 21-minute video of a Baghdadi sermon last Saturday, The New York Times reports.

Benjamin, a senior counterterrorism official in the State Department from 2009 to 2012, said that if the video was authentic, Mr. Baghdadi’s appearance would be a “remarkable event.”

“If Baghdadi has emerged from hiding, it suggests that he is adopting a posture as a different kind of leader from Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri and the like, and by implication a greater one,” said Mr. Benjamin, now a scholar at Dartmouth College. “He is demonstrating that ISIS has what they didn’t: territory that is secure, and he is its ruler.”

“As a public demonstration of leadership, you’d have to go back to April 1996, when Mullah Omar appeared on top of a building in Kandahar in a cloak that was said to belong to the prophet and was declared commander of the faithful,” Mr. Benjamin added.

Peter Neumann, a professor of security studies at Kings College London, said the appearance was “a sign of confidence” and a “message to all these other jihadists, this is really happening, it’s not going to go away anytime soon.”


US risks losing Iraq and Syria to ISIS



Credit: Institute for Study of War

Credit: Institute for Study of War

The U.S. can still help save Syria—and Iraq, says Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams.

What has been missing in Syria since 2011 is Western, and especially American, leadership and determination, but it is not too late for a new policy, argues Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“The early goal of a quick departure for Assad and transition to democracy in Syria is now impossible to attain,” he writes in the July/August issue of Standpoint:

More disorder and suffering are certain. But Syria need not be an endless source of refugees, a centre of inhuman suffering at the hands of a vicious minority regime, and a worldwide gathering place for jihadi extremists.  

Needed now are a serious and coordinated effort to assist the nationalist elements of the rebels, and organise assistance for them from others in the region—Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and Qatar are the most critical—and American (and if possible British and French) willingness to use force directly to punish chemical warfare and erode Assad’s air power. Those remain essential steps of a new policy that can over time diminish the tragedy being suffered by the Syrian people and the threat Syria now poses to regional stability and European and American security interests.


Jihadists in Iraq and Syria, led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) are capturing cities, energy assets, and military hardware daily. They now control a territory the size of Jordan and are building a state from which they aspire and are increasingly able to attack US regional interests, allies, and the United States itself. In a new publication, “Losing Syria and Iraq to Jihadists,” Atlantic Council Fellow Faysal Itani contends that the United States has every interest in enabling a moderate Sunni-led victory over ISIS, one that can lay the groundwork for a fair and inclusive political order that can end ISIS once and for all.

Itani outlines the roots and nature of the threat ISIS poses to US interests and security. He refutes arguments that Bashar al-Assad and Nouri al-Maliki could be allies against jihadists; that extremist groups in Syria and Iraq should simply be left to fight one another; or that a narrow counterterrorism approach can eliminate the ISIS threat. Itani argues instead that the deepening sectarian extremism in Syria and Iraq is the product of fundamentally dysfunctional political orders and the weakness of ISIS’ opponents.

Only the Sunni Arab community that ISIS aims to control can defeat it and offer a healthy alternative to its sectarian bigotry. Fortunately, the United States is not short of allies against ISIS, but they include neither the Assad nor the Maliki regimes.

Click here to download the publication.

Losing Syria and Iraq to jihadists? Or can Syrian moderates still save the day?

Jihadists in Iraq and Syria, led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) are capturing cities, energy facilities, and military hardware daily. They now control a territory the size of Jordan and are building a state from which they aspire and are increasingly able to attack US regional interests, allies, and the United States itself, notes the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

In a new Hariri Center publication, “Losing Syria and Iraq to Jihadists,” Fellow Faysal Itanioutlines the threat that ISIS poses to US interests and security. He refutes the argument that Bashar al-Assad and Nouri al-Maliki could be allies against jihadists, or that extremist groups in Syria should simply be left to fight one another.

The Obama administration can’t solve Iraq without solving Syria, says Andrew J. Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East and author of In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.

Syrians, including those who support the regime, now want the moderate opposition to prevail because they only have three options, writes analyst Abdulrahman Alrashed:

1) the Assad’s regime and its Iranian extremist allies; 2) Al-Qaeda; and 3) the moderate opposition. The latter is represented by the coalition, which is made up of Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, moderate Islamists, seculars and women. Why haven’t the moderate ones won the war, and why does Obama think they are incapable of defeating Assad? It’s because they’re deprived from everything — from obtaining advanced weapons, having safe border zones and from recruiting inside refugees’ camps. In addition, Russia and Iran are helping their enemy, the Syrian regime, and are providing it with weapons, food, information and funds.

The Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security today held an engaging discussion on this timely issue and options for a US response.

Faysal Itani focuses on the Levant and Iraq at the Atlantic Council, and in particular the conflict in Syria, sectarian politics, and political economy. Frederic C. Hof, the Council’s lead expert on Syria, served as special adviser for the transition in Syria at the State Department until September 2012. Barry Pavel focuses on emerging security challenges and strategies, and has served as the special assistant to the president and senior director for defense policy and strategy on the National Security Council staff. Danya Greenfield, acting director of the Hariri Center, moderated the discussion.

Syria’s rebellion ‘on the wane’ – but Assad can’t win

syriacarnegieDespite Bashar al Assad’s recent military success, it is highly unlikely the regime will be able to win the war, at least “win” in the conventional sense of destroying the enemy and regaining control of the country, says former US State Department official Josh Cohen. There are a series of reasons for this, he writes for NOW Lebanon.

Loss of control over territory

While the military situation remains fluid, it is probably safe to say that a solid half of Syria remains out of the regime’s hands.

Troop strength

Even with Hezbollah’s support, Assad’s army remains overstretched. Their offensives are able to defeat the rebels in campaigns such as Qalamoun, but then the fight moves elsewhere, leaving the regime playing “whack-a-mole” with the rebels. ….In sum, the Assad regime simply does not have the troop strength to reclaim the majority of lost territories, and likely never will.

Money and Syria’s economy

Assad is now heavily reliant on Iran and Russia to provide him with the resources he needs to continue the war. Unfortunately for the regime, much of the revenue-generating pieces of the Syrian economy are in the northern areas over which they have lost control. …. 

Increasing American aid to rebels

After much debate, it appears as though the Obama administration is providing so-called “lethal assistance” to the Syrian opposition, and there are numerous reports that weaponry has actually reached moderate rebels, including advanced anti-tank missiles. …. While increased American support will not be enough to allow the opposition to overthrow Assad, it does ensure that the opposition is able to increasingly resist Assad.


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the demographics of Syria work strongly against Assad. The Alawite minority that constitutes the backbone of the Assad regime (including his most battle-hardened military units) make up only 10-12% of the population of Syria. The largely Sunni rebels, by contrast, represent approximately 60-70% of Syria. Its’ simple – the demographic math just does not add up in Assad’s favor.

But while Syria’s armed rebellion has undergone visible consolidation both in the field and at the command level since September 2013, this highly positive development is unlikely to be enough to best the regime, argues Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. While the armed rebellion is far from being defeated, it has plateaued, both militarily and politically, he writes in a new analysis.

Fragmentation and dysfunctional competition among the rebel groups persist, and new rebel alliances have not yet demonstrated a notable increase in operational effectiveness. Credible estimates, moreover, indicate that overall rebel strength has not increased over the past year, suggesting that the rebellion has a “shrinking population of potential new recruits,” as a Carter Center report based on exhaustive field data noted in March 2014.

The critical problem is political. The interface of class and sectarian conflict that has characterized the entire Syrian crisis is leading to greater compartmentalization of the opposition. Each kind of political or military actor is consolidating within a narrowing social and geographical sphere. This is especially true of the growing number of rebel groups declaring an Islamist or Salafi orientation.

Many pro-democracy groups

Certainly, as a September 2013 study by the Arab Reform Initiative detailed, Syria’s armed rebellion contains many pro-democracy groups, and the declared “loyalty to some Islamist agenda” is often a device to secure external funding. But the publication of the Islamic Front’s political charter, Project of the Community of Believers , in November 2013—arguably the most developed founding document published by any rebel group—showed that the trend toward Salafism has not shifted, let alone reversed. In addition to predictably opposing secularism, the charter explicitly regarded shura (consultation) rather than democracy as the only viable means of rule, and it called for the establishment of a “guiding Islamic state .” Moreover, it pointedly rejected the term “civil state”—developed by “centrist” Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood to bridge the divide with secular liberals over the rival notion of “secular state”—deeming talk of such a state “misleading and resulting in the loss of rights.”

Formalizing and entrenching a Salafi agenda enables certain Islamist rebel groups to mobilize their social base and use resources and opportunities more effectively. By the same token, it alienates other communities—not just Alawites or non-Muslims but more generally urban middle classes, including many Sunnis, among whom overt activism has retreated despite widespread dislike of the Assad regime. It does not help the rebels’ cause more broadly that Saudi lobbying ensured that some of the opposition’s most visible leaders—National Coalition chairman Ahmad al-Jarba, provisional defense minister Asaad Mustafa, and SMC head Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir—were selected implicitly for their tribal backgrounds. 

This might not have mattered as much had the Syrian opposition succeeded in building a genuinely united front in which Salafi Islamist rebels represented one constituency and diverse political parties and grassroots movements credibly represented the others. But such a front does not exist: the National Coalition lacks both credibility and substance as an all-encompassing framework. Additionally, the Saudi campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood—whose appeal in Syria is strongest among urban entrepreneurial classes—can only discourage parts of the opposition’s social base while diminishing further its ability to mobilize support among Syria’s smaller religious and ethnic communities. 

The armed rebellion’s ability to encompass other parts of Syrian society has decreased. The fact that this translates into a definite divide between rebels and civilians over what motivates each of them, and over whether to seek a negotiated solution with or full military victory over the regime, points to a fundamental problem that is deepening rather than receding with the passage of time. Much like the regime, the armed rebellion’s Achilles’ heel is not military but political.


The rebels have proven remarkably tenacious, reflecting their social base’s deep resentment of decades-long regime mismanagement of the country’s resources and of the endemic corruption that compounded it by state officials and security agents. And the armed rebellion’s achievements in the face of severe material constraints and the regime’s marked advantages cannot be underestimated.

But despite their tenacity, it is dangerous to pin too much hope on the rebels’ promise of bringing down the regime or even of weakening it further. The armed rebellion’s underlying problems leave it ever more vulnerable. Anecdotal evidence and sample surveys conducted in liberated areas suggest that, as a result, a growing number of grassroots leaders inside Syria now believe that the longer the armed conflict continues, the less ground the opposition can hold. If this is true, then the rebellion will wane faster than it can consolidate from now on.


This brief extract is taken from an article that is part of a series on the state of the Syrian conflict that includes pieces on the Assad regime, the political opposition, and each side’s prospects.

Yezid Sayigh is a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where his work focuses on the Syrian crisis, the political role of Arab armies, security sector transformation in Arab transitions, the reinvention of authoritarianism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and peace process.