There’s a phony war in Ukraine, and a real, live one in Syria, where up to 150,000 people have been killed since 2011. (Iraq, however, is on track to match Syria before long.) In brutal fighting that often verges on massacres and outright mass slaughter, lately the government of President Bashar al-Assad has upped the ante. On Thursday, “barrel bombs” and missiles rained down on what The New York Times described as a “bustling market” in Aleppo, blowing thirty-three people apart and leaving scenes that were videotaped as a record of the carnage. (Don’t watch if you don’t have a strong stomach.)
And just the day before, Syrian airstrikes hit an elementary school in Aleppo, killing twenty—including seventeen children. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of people have been killed in barrel-bomb attacks, which are powerful and indiscriminate, and HRW says that they’ve been used at least eighty-five times in Aleppo since February.
What can the United States, or anyone, do? Not a lot. Diplomacy is faltering, except in regard to Syria’s chemical weapons. In Syria’s civil war, Assad—who’s announced plans to run for re-election in June—is winning. Backed by Russia (which has even more reason now, after Ukraine, to give the United States a black eye in Syria) and Iran (which, on the other hand, may be willing to compromise on Syria as it moves toward a deal with the United States over its nuclear program), Assad is steadily gaining ground in a war in which there are no “good guys.” The Islamist-extremist anti-Assad forces, led especially by allies of Al Qaeda and radicals even more extreme, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have committed atrocities of their own. And inside Syria, more and more it’s looking like Assad will stick around, at least in the medium term, with many Syrians fearful that the Islamists might be a lot worse than the government.
That said, the hawks and neoconservatives who’ve been itching to get more deeply involved in Syria’s civil war say that they’ve found a group worth supporting, finally: it’s called Harakat Hazm, which means “Steadfastness Movement.” And it’s being promoted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), which is singing its virtues:
Harakat Hazm formed in January 2014 via the merger of twenty-two separate rebel units. According to its founding documents, it is a “revolutionary political organization with a military wing…working to bring down the regime in Syria and seeking to restore the freedom and dignity of the Syrian people.” There is very little Islamist content in these documents or the group’s various Internet postings. In general, the movement appears more interested in warfighting against the regime than the infighting that has long plagued the political and military opposition.
After describing Harakat Hazm’s alleged moderation, professionalism and sophisticated weaponry, WINEP concludes:
In short, Harakat Hazm appears to be a model for the type of group the United States and its allies can support with meaningful, lethal military assistance. It seems to meet several important military and political criteria, and how it rates on others can be determined by contact with the organization and intelligence collection. That process already appears to be under way for this group and, perhaps, other rebel factions on the more secular/less Islamist side of the spectrum. In addition to providing more weapons, an assistance program could improve the skills of individual fighters and whole units, making them more effective on the battlefield. Efforts to enhance command and control and establish sound logistics would have similar benefits.