US looks for Syrian moderates' help against ISIL in Iraq
JEDDAH - AP
King Abdullah and US Secretary of State John Kerry wait for a meeting at the King's private residence Friday, June 27, 2014 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Kerry signaled on Friday that the U.S. hopes to enlist moderate Syrian opposition fighters that the Obama administration has reluctantly decided to arm and train in the battle against militant extremists in neighboring Iraq. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)Secretary of State John Kerry signaled on Friday that the U.S. hopes to enlist moderate Syrian opposition fighters that the Obama administration has reluctantly decided to arm and train in the battle against militant extremists in neighboring Iraq.
Obama sent Congress a $500 million request Thursday for a Pentagon-run program that would significantly expand previous covert efforts to arm rebels fighting both the Sunni extremists and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. The move that comes amid increased U.S. concern that the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are becoming an intertwined fight against the same Sunni extremist group.
If approved by lawmakers, the program would in effect open a second front in the fight against militants with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, that is spilling over Syria’s border and threatening to overwhelm Iraq.
"Obviously, in light of what has happened in Iraq, we have even more to talk about in terms of the moderate opposition in Syria, which has the ability to be a very important player in pushing back against ISIL’s presence and to have them not just in Syria, but also in Iraq," Kerry said at the start of a meeting with Syrian opposition leader Ahmad al-Jarba.
A senior State Department official traveling with Kerry later said the secretary did not mean to imply that Syrian rebels would actually cross the border to fight in Iraq. The official was not authorized to brief reporters by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Al-Jarba thanked the Obama administration for requesting the $500 million, but said his rebels want even more foreign aid to fight two fronts: a bloody insurgency and their so-far unsuccessful effort to oust Assad.
"We still need greater assistance," al-Jarba said, speaking through a translator. "We hope for greater cooperation with the U.S." He said General Abdullah al-Bashir, the head of the military wing of the Syrian opposition, "is ready to cooperate with the U.S. side."
Al-Jarba called the crisis that has gripped Iraq in the last month "very grave" and blamed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for policies that he said have divided the country. Iraq is 60 percent Shiite, and the rest nearly evenly split between minority Sunnis and Kurds. Iraqi Sunnis, who enjoyed far greater privileges during Saddam Hussein’s regime, have decried al-Maliki’s leadership and accused him of sidelining minority groups from power.
"The borders between Iraq and Syria are practically open," al-Jarba told Kerry. ISIL seized a key border crossing between Iraq and Syria in the last week.
Kerry traveled through the Mideast over the last week to try to broker a political agreement with Iraqi leaders to give more authority to Sunnis in hopes of easing sectarian tensions and, in turn, help quell the dominantly Sunni insurgency.
Kerry also met with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, where it was expected he would seek the monarch’s help in supporting Sunni efforts to combat the Sunni insurgency. More than 90 percent of Saudi Arabians are Sunni Muslims.
Obama has long been reluctant to arm the Syrian opposition, in part because of concerns that weapons may fall into extremist hands, a risk that appears to have only heightened now that ISIL has strengthened. But Obama’s request to Congress appeared to indicate that tackling the crumbling security situation in Syria and Iraq trumped those concerns.
White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the military assistance "marks another step toward helping the Syrian people defend themselves against regime attacks, push back against the growing number of extremists like ISIL who find safe haven in the chaos, and take their future into their own hands by enhancing security and stability at local levels."
The Syria program is part of a broader, $65.8 billion overseas operations request that the administration sent to Capitol Hill on Thursday. The package includes $1 billion to help stabilize nations bordering Syria that are struggling with the effects of the civil war. It also formalizes a request for a previously announced $1 billion to strengthen the U.S. military presence in Central and Eastern Europe amid Russia’s threatening moves in Ukraine.
With ISIL gaining strength, U.S. officials say Assad’s forces launched airstrikes on extremist targets inside Iraq on Monday. The U.S. is also weighing targeted strikes against ISIL in Iraq, creating an odd alignment with one of Washington’s biggest foes.
Obama has ruled out sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq. But he has dispatched nearly 600 U.S. forces in and around Iraq to train local forces and secure the American Embassy in Baghdad and other U.S. interests.
The White House has been hinting for weeks that Obama was preparing to step up assistance to the Syrian rebels. In a commencement speech at West Point on May 28, he said that by helping those fighting for a free Syria, "we also push back against the growing number of extremists who find safe haven in the chaos."
Officials said the administration would coordinate with Congress and regional players on the specific types of training and assistance the U.S. would provide the opposition. One potential option would be to base U.S. personnel in Jordan and conduct the training there.
The Senate Armed Services Committee already has approved a version of the sweeping defense policy bill authorizing the Defense Department to provide "equipment, supplies, training and defense services" to elements of the Syrian opposition that have been screened. The Senate could act on the bill before its August recess.
In addition to the covert train-and-equip mission, the U.S. also has provided nearly $287 million in nonlethal assistance to the moderate opposition.
The military program would be supplemented by $1 billion in assistance to Syria’s neighbors - Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq - to help them deal with an influx of refugees and the threat of extremists spilling over their borders.
Syrian rebels buckling in the face of jihadis
The Syrian rebels that the U.S. now wants to support are in poor shape, on the retreat from the radical al-Qaida breakaway group that has swept over large parts of Iraq and Syria, with some rebels giving up the fight. It is not clear whether the new U.S. promise to arm them will make a difference.
Some, more hard-line Syrian fighters are bending to the winds and joining the radicals.
The Obama administration is seeking $500 million to train and arm what it calls "moderate" factions among the rebels, a far larger project than a quiet CIA-led effort in Jordan that has been training a few hundreds fighters a month. But U.S. officials say it will take a year to get the new program fully underway. The U.S. also faces the difficult task of what constitutes a "moderate" rebel in a movement dominated by Islamist ideologies.
Opposition activists complain that after long hesitating to arm the rebellion to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad - their main goal - the United States is now enlisting them against the Islamic State out of its own interests. They have long argued that the group, which aims to create a radical Islamic enclave bridging Syria and Iraq, was only able to gain such power in Syria because more moderate forces were not given international support.
"This decision is a year and a half too late," said Ahmad Ramadan, a senior member of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition opposition group. "Had it not been for Obama’s hesitation all along, this wouldn’t be happening in Iraq today nor would there be this proliferation of extremist factions in Syria," he added.
Meeting with Syrian opposition leader Ahmed al-Jarba in the Saudi city of Jeddah on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made clear the priority in helping the rebels was to fight the Islamic State - with hopes that their battlefield successes in Syria could dilute their insurgency’s power in Iraq.
The moderate opposition in Syria "has the ability to be a very important player in pushing back against ISIL’s presence and to have them not just in Syria, but also in Iraq," Kerry said. A senior State Department official traveling with Kerry later said the secretary did not mean to imply that Syrian rebels would actually cross the border to fight in Iraq. The official was not authorized to brief reporters by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Al-Jarba, who leads a coalition in exile that only has nominal authority over some rebels on the ground, welcomed the aid, and appealed for more. But in Syria, opposition activists were skeptical.
The aid "will only worsen the crisis," said an activist in the northern city of Aleppo, using his nickname Abu Bishr for his own protection. "They want Syria to enter a new war" between rebels and extremists. "This will not help at all."
As the Islamic State has blitzed across much of northern and western Iraq this month, its fighters have also advanced in Syria against other rebels. They now hold most of the Euphrates River valley in eastern Syria. They have tightened their siege on the one major hold-out city in that region, Deir el-Zour.
In the past two weeks, they have also captured a string of villages in the northern province of Aleppo. Islamic State’s fighters in Syria have been boosted by advanced weapons, tanks and Humvees captured in Iraq and then transported to Syria.
In a significant development, beleaguered Nusra Front fighters surrounded by Islamic State forces in the town of Boukamal on the border with Iraq defected this week and joined the Islamic State. That effectively handed the town over to the Islamic State, which controls the Iraqi side of the crossing.
The Syrian uprising began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests against the Assad family, which has ruled Syria for more than four decades. After the government brutally cracked down on the protest movement, many Syrians took up arms to fight back. As the uprising shifted into civil war, the Western-backed Free Syrian Army emerged, a loose term for a collection of self-formed brigades and defectors from Assad’s military that fight under a nationalist banner.
But Islamic fighters became the dominant force in the armed opposition, ranging from religious-minded Syrians calling for rule by Shariah law to more extreme al-Qaida-inspired ideologies. Foreign jihadis flooded into the conflict.
The Islamic State, which was at the time Iraq’s branch in al-Qaida, barged into the Syria war in 2012, sending its forces and joined by foreign jihadis. At first, many rebels welcomed its experienced fighters. But they quickly turned on each other in violent clashes as other rebels accused Islamic State of using particularly brutal tactics and of trying to take over the opposition movement for their own transnational goals.
Even other Islamic extremist factions among the rebels fought the Islamic State, including the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, which the U.S. has declared a terrorist group. Al-Qaida’s central leadership booted the Islamic State out of its network, blaming it for clashing with other groups.
But the rebels are being eroded by the war-within-a-war with the Islamic State.
"The Syrian opposition is exhausted," said Adam al-Ataribi, a spokesman for the Mujahedeen Army, a small group fighting alongside other rebels against the extremists.
An opposition activist based in the northern town of Marea said the FSA has lost more people fighting against the Islamic State in the past year than it has against Assad’s forces. "There is a steady attrition within rebel ranks," he said.
More hardline rebels currently fighting the Islamic State could follow in joining it.
"ISIL is currently the top dog with the most money in the jihadi universe. Siding with them would seem like a rational choice, at least temporarily," said Bilal Saab, a senior fellow for Middle East Security at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.
Activists say other fighters in the nationalist-minded opposition are just abandoning the fight altogether due to frustration and disillusionment. Judging how many is difficult, but several activists in Syria speaking to the AP saw it as a growing trend.
"We have no reliable information on how many fighters have quit the FSA, but the view on the ground is that attrition is high," said Sam Whitt, principle investigator for the Voices of Syria project, which tracks public opinion from inside the Syrian civil war through survey interviews.
Abdullah, a 27-year-old former FSA fighter, said that when the Islamic State overran his hometown of al-Bab in northern Syria in the spring, killing two of his friends in the rebel ranks, he decided to quit and leave.
"The whole world has abandoned us. I realized that our uprising has been hijacked by others, and that nothing will be settled unless there is an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia," he said, speaking via Skype from Turkey and referring to the main patrons of Assad and the rebels, respectively.
"That’s not worth dying for."