TSG IntelBrief: The Collapse of Syria’s ‘Moderate’ Rebels
March 3, 2015

The Collapse of Syria’s ‘Moderate’ Rebels

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• The collapse of the rebel group Harakat Hazm means that, in effect, there is no substantial and credible Western-backed ‘moderate’ opposition throughout most of Syria

• Since there really isn’t a standing moderate force aligned with Western-governments that is capable of withstanding attacks by extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State while also fighting the Assad regime, one will have to be created—an exceedingly challenging and time-consuming effort

• The issue of ‘vetting’ acceptable rebel fighters and then training them in numbers large enough to actually make a difference on the battlefield will prove to be extraordinarily challenging

• While the West works to rebuild and then support moderate opposition, the estimated 1,600 rebel groups currently operating in Syria—many extremist or quasi-extremist—will continue shape-shifting in alliances of convenience.

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The West’s policy to support existing ‘moderate’ rebel groups in Syria with military supplies to fight both extremists and the Assad regime is in trouble for the simple fact that there are few still operating in Syria. There are effective units of the Free Syrian Army operating in southern Syria, near the border with Jordan, but the crucial battlefields of the north and east appear to be without moderate opposition, with extremist groups filling the void. The collapse and self-dissolution of the Western-backed Harakat Hazm group, after sustained attacks around Aleppo by the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), is a dramatic end to a group openly supported—to some degree—with Western military supplies and training.

Images of JN fighters holding Western-provided military equipment, including TOW missiles seized after Hazm dissolved, are likely to reignite debate as to the wisdom of arming rebel groups with such weapons. One argument is that only more weapons will help the ‘moderates’ fight against the regime and the extremists, while others will argue that giving more weapons to these groups is essentially an indirect way of handing them to the extremists. Both arguments have merits and challenges, but neither acknowledges perhaps the more fundamental question: Is it too late and was it ever possible in the first place, for Western-backed Syrian moderates to succeed in what has become an extremist-dominated fight?

The challenge now facing the West is to essentially create an acceptable and moderate Syrian military opposition outside of Syria and then introduce it into the battlefield when it is ready. This process is understandably but troublingly slow, in that each fighter has to be vetted—with limited information to base assessments on—and then trained and equipped. The timetable of fielding enough of these fighters to alter the dynamic of the Syrian war is lengthy enough to lead to questions as to what kind of state Syria will be in once they arrive: One in which the Islamic State holds the east, JN holds the north, and Assad holds parts of the west, south, and the capital of Damascus?

It will take far more than the estimated 5,000 fighters than can be trained in the next year to change that reality against any one of those groups, let alone all of them. And the stigma that comes from being supported by the West in this all-extremist fight might cause more problems in terms of fighting other rebel groups than it does in solving problems such as the lack of weapons and training. Hazm gave up not because it tired of fighting Assad but because it tired of fighting JN, which attacked it as a perceived pawn of Western interests.

The situation in Syria for Western-policy makers now resembles something out of Dante. However, instead of a single trusted guide in Virgil there are numerous guides with competing narratives to navigate the hellish landscape. Even the successful training of rebels comes with complications. For Turkey, which just signed an agreement with the U.S. to train rebels in Turkey, these fighters are meant to fight Assad; yet the U.S. intends for them to fight the Islamic State. As the battle increasingly becomes one of the Assad regime vs. the extremists, the disagreement between coalition partners over who is considered the paramount enemy will become unavoidable and will demand resolution.

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