Nicholas A. Heras is the Research Associate in the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) – This month, the United States and several of its Middle Eastern allies will begin training Syrian fighters through a revamped train-and-equip program that will form the core first class of Syria’s non-jihadist armed opposition. At this stage, the program will seek to identify, train, and support 5,000 Syrian rebel fighters a year for three years, and will likely involve the cooperation of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and could also include Jordan. Optimally, the end game of this reportedly more robust train-and-equip program will be a Syria that emerges from its civil war with a pluralistic government, the Assad regime removed, and the more ideologically radical elements of the Syrian rebel movement defeated and marginalized.
The need for a competent rebel force on the ground is heightened by the reality that the large segment of the Syrian population that supports the uprising will continue to need protection and security, but will want it provided by an alternative to the Assad regime. This force will also need to be strong enough to secure the local areas in which it is located and to impede the advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), currently the major policy objective driving the revamped program. As proposed today in a Foreign Policy article by former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, a refashioned rebel army with a unified command and control structure that can enforce discipline within the ranks will be vital, as will its need to appeal to Syria’s minority communities.
Ford referred to the current train-and-equip program as “too little, too late,” and he makes a compelling argument for the administration’s need to either “undertake a major effort or walk away.” But while a target of 15,000 fighters trained over three years may sound insufficient to fundamentally shift the conflict, the effort can have great impact if it serves as a standard-bearing “train-the-trainer” model that builds up over time, from community to community.
From the outset, however, the train-and-equip program will have to answer questions about how its objective for the state will be an improvement over the current Syrian republic which encompasses diverse sectarian and ethnic backgrounds, despite the authoritarian power of the Assad family, the corrupt Ba’ath syndicate deep state, and its brutal security system. Nevertheless, the current Syrian republic, its advocates point out, has a longer and more practiced history of relative pluralism than that of the Syrian opposition, which has largely been splintered by factionalism and its armed groups heavily influenced by militant Islamist ideology. These are valid points, and the United States and its allies will need to address them in order to build up the capacity of the opposition to participate in a transition from the Assad regime.
Thus, United States’ strategic objective for guiding the train-and-equip program should be to build into the training a firm ideological component that seeks a pluralistic and democratic order in Syria, promoting the equal rights of all of Syrians. This will be a challenge, as the U.S.-led effort must reconcile the previous influence of its participating partners, particularly Qatar and Turkey, who have much-criticized records of influencing the armed opposition toward a more militantly Islamist ideological position. It will also need to respect and incorporate, but also moderate, the conviction of many Syrian rebel fighters that they are on a religious mission to fight a corrupt regime. Achieving the right balance in this ideological model, and making it stick for the entirety of the rest of the conflict to follow, would be an accomplishment with potentially exponential effects on the course of the war and its aftermath.
In theory, empowered Syrian rebel groups could stand their ground against both ISIS and the Assad regime, strengthening local governance, and coordinating humanitarian assistance distribution. If performed in a careful, phased manner, the train-and-equip program could focus on the local level to empower rebel communities through humanitarian assistance that is funneled through the vetted rebel groups. The focus should be on building the capacity of the vetted armed opposition to deliver social goods to their communities that are in dire need. This is a means to unify military and humanitarian assistance to the rebels in order to maximize the soft power of the United States on the Syrian opposition.
If the train-and-equip program begins to show success in accomplishing this objective, it will present an active threat to the Assad regime’s narrative that the Syrian rebel movement is a terrorist front bent on targeting and destroying Syria’s pluralism. This would make it the target of the regime and its Iranian allies and their auxiliaries, such as Hezbollah and Shi’i jihadist militias, likely producing another policy dilemma for the administration: whether or not to actively protect the empowered rebel movement it has been building. This will be an important question that could bring the U.S. closer to war with Iran, as it would spell a legitimate threat to their important proxy. This type of rebel rule could potentially establish a pluralistic precedent that could assuage the fears of Syria’s regime-loyalist communities, many of them ethnic and sectarian minorities such as Christians, Druze, and Alawites whose eventual buy-in and participation would be required to achieve a transition from the Assad regime.
However, at this initial stage of the revamped train-and-equip program is the complicating reality that throughout the country moderate Syrian armed opposition groups actively cooperate with the often more powerful rebel factions that seek to establish a fully-functioning sharia state in post-Assad Syria. Syria’s armed opposition is largely, although not completely, composed of groups whose fighters are Sunni Arabs. These factions range from militant Salafist groups such as the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, to groups that have a vision of a state governed by Islamic law that more closely resembles that espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Liwa al-Tawhid, Jaysh al-Islam, and Suqur al-Sham. Many of the fighters in these groups originally joined rebel militias that did not promote a sharia state. However, over time they came to adopt this ideology due to the devolution of the Syrian conflict into one characterized by sectarian anger and ideologically influenced by financial backers in the Gulf Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait.
It is difficult to know for certain which of these groups can be integrated into an expanded train-and-equip program, or if the fighters of these groups are, on average, true ideologues seeking a post-Assad sharia state. Some joined the more militant Islamist factions merely for financial reasons, and may be able to pass the requirement of supporting a pluralistic, inclusive Syria. Nevertheless, Washington is presented with a significant policy dilemma. The pressure of the war has led to greater convergence, operational cooperation, and resource sharing within Syria’s rebel ranks across the ideological spectrum, and the task of vetting fighters and separating them according to ideological distinctions will likely be quite difficult.
The train-and-equip program will thus need to build a sustainable ideological model for the Syrian armed opposition movement. It should seek to work slowly and methodically, acknowledging that not all of the fighters for the revamped opposition army were always perfectly aligned with the vision for a democratic and pluralistic Syria. Realizing this, however, does not preclude the U.S. and its allies from acting now, with the soft power of financial assistance and the hard power of weapons and training, to forcefully insist on an ideological standard for the new rebel army. This effort is as much a struggle to build a pluralistic and democratic model for the Syrian armed opposition, as it is to bring the fight to ISIS and transition from the Assad regime.