It’s read-’em-and-weep for supporters of the Syrian opposition. The whole enterprise has been on a slippery slope for quite some time, and now it’s tumbled straight down into oblivion. The “official” opposition, the so-called moderates who’ve been halfheartedly backed by the Obama administration since 2011, have been overwhelmed, it seems, by radicals, ultra-radicals and Al Qaeda types. As a result, the administration has officially suspended the supply of nonlethal aid to the Syrian rebels because, well, it’s going to the wrong guys.
This week, the top rebel commander backed by the United States, General Salim Idris of the tattered Free Syrian Army and its parent group, the Supreme Military Council, was forced to flee from Syria for his life when more radical elements affiliated with the so-called Islamic Front muscled in to his territory. (The Islamic Front is a concoction of radical-right Islamists, formed last month, who are, nevertheless, separate and distinct from the pro–Al Qaeda Nusra Front and the even more radical, Iraq-based Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Shams, or ISIS. Still, the Islamic Front says its goal is to turn Syria into an “Islamic state.”) As The Wall Street Journal put it, succinctly:
Gen. Idris flew to the Qatari capital of Doha on Sunday after fleeing to Turkey, U.S. officials said Wednesday. “He fled as a result of the Islamic Front taking over his headquarters,” a senior U.S. official said.
Oh, and the Islamists also seized control of the warehouses that stock all the goodies that the Obama administration has been supplying to the anti-Assad fighters, including trucks and tanks. Added the Journal:
The Islamists also took over key warehouses holding U.S. military gear for moderate fighters in northern Syria over the weekend. The takeover and flight of Gen. Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army shocked the U.S., which along with Britain immediately froze delivery of nonlethal military aid to rebels in northern Syria.… Two senior officials said the warehouses taken over by the Islamic Front appeared to contain a range of lethal and nonlethal equipment.
Somewhat pathetically, the United States has been holding talks with the Islamic Front. Perhaps the best spin to be put on those talks is that Obama administration wants as many rebels as possible to come to Geneva in January to participate in the peace conference jointly sponsored by Washington and Moscow. The government of President Bashar al-Assad has already said that it will attend, and the rebels are all over the place. In any case, however, the United States has decided to suspend the delivery to support to the rebels until the situation clarifies itself. As The New York Times reports:
Just a month before a peace conference that will seek an end to the grinding civil war in Syria, the Obama administration’s decision to suspend the delivery of nonlethal aid to the moderate opposition demonstrated again the frustrations of trying to cultivate a viable alternative to President Bashar al-Assad.… With rebels feuding with one another instead of concentrating on fighting Mr. Assad…the United States [is] still groping for a reliable partner in Syria.
It’s pretty much a complete and total collapse of the American efforts to back opposition to Assad, whose own forces have put together a string of military victories since the spring, retaking important strongholds and using aid from Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Shiite group, Hezbollah, to do so.
Tony Blinken, the top White House foreign policy official and former aide to Vice President Joe Biden, told a conference that the radicalization of the conflict and the strength of the Islamists might convince everyone involved from the outside to seek a peace accord. But a closer reading of Blinken’s comments seemed to indicate that he was suggesting that Russia would feel compelled to lessen its support for Assad because it fears that the Islamist rebels—who include a number of extremist Chechen fighters who’ll try to wreak havoc in Russia when they return. Reports Foreign Policy:
Speaking at Transformational Trends, a conference co-hosted by Foreign Policy and the Policy Planning Staff of the U.S. State Department, Blinken said that the radicalization of the conflict may create a shared interest among world powers to bring the war to an end. The growing prominence of radical groups has “begun to concentrate the minds of critical actors outside of Syria” and may strip the Bashar al-Assad regime of the key international backing that has so far helped to keep him in power.
“The Russians have a profound interest in avoiding the emergence of an extremist Syria, a haven for extremist groups,” Blinken said. “Many of Syria’s neighbors have the same incentive, and of course we have a strong reason to want to avoid that future.”
Really, Mr. Blinken. Fact is, the United States and Russia have a joint interest in suppressing and eliminating the Islamist rebels. And that’s it. One danger is that Saudi Arabia, which is apoplectic about the impending US-Iran accord and which is equally angry about the US-Russia diplomacy over Syria, may be pouring funds into the non–Al Qaeda Islamist radicals, such as the Islamist Front, just to give the United States a black eye. If so, Washington had better read the riot act to Riyadh.