America had good reasons for not bombing Syria. Among them, only a minority of politicians or the public wanted to have another go at rooting out WMDs in the Middle East with Patriot missiles. The specter of Iraq was too much. But the course that was taken instead—dealing with Russia to seize Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons—also has born consequences. The move rankled Saudi Arabia, which had urged a strike. It also created a power struggle that could topple the moderate rebel groups the U.S. supports—and thus, push America to the sidelines in the game of influence over Syria's civil war.
For over a year, the U.S. has tried, perhaps ineffectually, to shape the Free Syrian Army into a fighting force of moderates that can beat President Bashar al-Assad. It helped form the Supreme Military Council (SMC) last December to add a command structure to what had been a boneless mass of militias, while also establishing a destination for foreign aid. But as President Obama proved reluctant to give munitions that would turn the war’s tide, the militias in the SMC grew restive. Since the U.S. declined to punish Assad after a chemical attack, and instead partnered with the regime’s benefactor, Russia, the SMC has looked disjointed and wobbly. It might flip upside down so extremists, rather than moderates, are on top. Or it could crumble altogether.
“The Russian deal sent a clear message that the United States is not going to do the heavy lifting,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “Right after that, everything started to move.”
In late September, a heavyweight in the Tawhid Brigade, an Islamist militia, issued a declaration rejecting the council’s political counterpart and proclaiming a shared principle of Islamic rule among a list of signatories that operate in the north. That alliance was reportedly autographed by a member of Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate—and also by representatives of militias belonging to the SMC. Days later, dozens of brigades around Damascus united under the banner of Jaish al-Islam, or the Army of Islam, to become a formidable coalition that threatened to rival the SMC in the capital. Again, the bigger problem was the question of loyalty—the army’s commander, Zahran Alloush, is a founding member of the SMC. He has amassed and consolidated power, reportedly with an outpouring of support from Saudi Arabia. His muscle is desperately needed by the SMC, and it's not clear what role, if any, he will play in the council going forward.
A State Department official told me on background that the American government was aware of these reports but that it is difficult to determine if the signatories actually represent the majority of the militias, or even if the leaders have agreed to these accords. “We understand these types of statements reflect the frustration over the ground situation, and we remain committed to increasing pressure on the regime by continuing to support the Syrian Coalition and the Supreme Military Council to help change the balance on the ground and move towards a negotiated political solution,” the official said, adding that there has been no change in policy regarding assistance for the SMC or the opposition’s political arm and that aid, including shipments of “lethal aid,” is being sent and that would continue. (According to reports, batches of American-supplied light weapons finally began landing in Syria, via the CIA, about six weeks ago, and the State Department recently sent vehicles and other supplies.)
Louay Safi, a spokesman for the political opposition, said that the incident in the north was an “an expression of dissatisfaction, of discontent” largely based on the debate over whether or not leaders should attend next month’s peace conference in Geneva. The Obama administration had pushed for the conference to bring the opposition and the regime together for talks, but it is controversial among many of the rebels. Alloush, for instance, “is part of this group who is saying Geneva will not lead anywhere, that it will harm the revolution because it will give recognition to a regime that has already lost it.” Safi added that the president of the opposition coalition has met with some of the leaders who object to the Geneva strategy, but “there are a lot of misgivings.” Tensions would ease if organizers of the Geneva meeting “exert[ed] some pressure to make the regime stop the bombardment of towns and heavy population centers and to provide humanitarian corridors to the areas under siege.”
According to Landis, the recalcitrance among the SMC’s ranks is a direct result of the Russia deal that left the American-backed political opposition “dangling in the wind.” It led to new and recrudescent alliances with other groups. “These militias realized it’s better to line up with the Salafist and the jihadist groups than to count on America destroying Assad. They were thumbing their noses,” said Landis, who has consulted for the State Department.
Alloush told Al Jazeera television that he formed the Army of Islam to “achieve unity among the units of the mujahideen and avoid the effects produced by the divisions within the National Coalition," as Reuters reported. The article also quoted a spokesman for the Army as saying, "We do not make enemies of those who are not enemies to us"—implying that the army's formation didn’t necessarily mean a total break with the SMC. The degrees of separation or connection between Alloush and the SMC have been cloudy since the creation of his new army, but the symbolism of the move was powerful.
Landis believes the severity of the situation will lead to a rejiggering of the SMC, which will likely mean a bigger role for Alloush—and his Saudi-backed, well-armed, well-funded Army of Islam. The SMC has "got to bring themselves closer to these large coalitions that are forming on the ground,” he said.
According to a source close to the Syrian opposition, negotiations about the future make-up of the SMC are occurring now. “There is going to be a reshuffle that is going to include Alloush and Maj. Gen. Salim Idris"—the SMC’s chief of staff—"in the same command structure,” said the source, describing a series of ongoing meetings in Turkey. “I don’t know if Alloush is going to be subordinate to him or equal with him. But it’s going to be extensive, involving all 30 members.” The source added, “It’s still pretty shaky so far." (Landis said he also has heard that the political branch of the opposition has been talking with Alloush. He believes the commander of the Army of Islam will be brought back into the fold and granted greater clout, whether or not that means a new title or formal arrangement.)
When I contacted Louay Muqdad, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, on Monday, he said all of the SMC’s brigade leaders convened earlier in the day “to unite all of the cultures on the ground,” adding that the SMC must “complete reconstruction” because one of its leaders, Yasser al-Aboud, was killed a week earlier. He said that reports of Alloush leaving the SMC, stem from a “misunderstanding” and that the declaration in the north signaled a lack of support for the political opposition, “but there is no problem with the SMC.” Instead, “Our problem is that we will not go to Geneva or another place until we receive clear guarantees from the international community that Assad has no future in any solution in Syria and that he will be charged with the killing of Syrian people and face justice."
Landis sees the SMC’s objections to peace talks as an indication that Saudi Arabia, and therefore Alloush, has assumed greater authority within the council: “Obama is trying to get the Assad regime and the rebels to have a political dialogue. Saudi Arabia is furious about this and thinks that America should help destroy Assad and get the rebels a military victory instead. The [SMC and the opposition’s political leadership] is caught in between these two…. And they’ve decided to side with the Saudis, which they have confirmed by renewing their alliance with Alloush and his Islamic Army. So now they’re saying, ‘We’re not going to go to Geneva unless America gets rid of Assad.’ That’s the tug of war that’s going on here."
Ramy Khouri, the former editor of The Daily Star in Beirut, told me that outside influences have sewn discord among the Syrian opposition. “One of the clear problems in Syria is that you have so many external actors from all across the Middle East and further a field. Sometimes the local people might want to do something, but their external patrons might want them to do something else,” he said. The chemical-weapons ban that the U.S. and Russia agreed on caused further shifts, as groups "made changes in their positions based on what’s going on, after they calculated what’s in their best interests,” he said. “It makes the whole situation unpredictable. You get people who change their positions on a week-by-week basis, sometimes.”
These tensions woven among outside patrons and militias on the inside have hampered the effort to defeat Assad and extended the conflict, Khouri said. And by not striking Assad or supplying more robust aid and weapons to the rebels, America’s pull has dramatically declined. “My impression is that we give too much emphasis to the Americans these days. I don’t see the Americans as the major player. The Saudis are probably much more important right now, then the Turks or the Qataris,” said Khouri.
Outside perceptions of a war often are at odds with those on the battlefield.
“I sense in Washington that the azimuth of the Syria debate is pointed north,” said Jessica Lewis, who served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan and is the research director at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank that has done research for Congress and the executive branch, including on the SMC. “But to me, as a former soldier, it looks like there’s a lot of fighting left and not a lot of clean victories. So it looks messy on the ground, like something that could radicalize the middle because it’s a desperate situation.”
For Landis, however, moderates are already being radicalized or pushed aside. “My worry is that the United States has really lost the battle in Syria for a pro-America Syrian rebellion,” he said. “The Syrian groups that are winning the war on the ground today are not pro-Western. They’re not groups that U.S. politicians are going to invite to Washington and say, ‘These are our guys.’”