by Matthew Murphy
A short time ago, President Obama made an attempt to define the dimensions within which the United States will engage the Islamic State, the self-proclaimed caliphate created by the former Al-Qaeda offshoot ISIS that controls territory in Syria and Iraq. Since talk of increasing efforts against the Islamic State began, policy makers have expressed the need to increase support of opposition forces that are fighting against both ISIS and Assad. As the Islamic State is one of the most powerful opponents of the Assad regime in Syria, its destruction may indirectly empower the Syrian government and its fight against rebel forces. Policy makers argue that an effective strategy in Syria necessitates the support of rebel opposition forces that will fill the void left by the Islamic State in the fight against Assad. However, an important question that the U.S. may have failed to ask is: What will be the ramifications of empowering the rebels in the Syrian Conflict?
1) By supporting the opposition forces, the U.S. bolsters their ability to wage war against Assad loyalists. The coalition of pro-Assad forces, comprised of the Syrian military, Shia militias called Shabiha, Hezbollah and Iran’s Quds force, have recently gained the advantage in Syria and have been beating back the opposition on many fronts. While this may not be the preferred outcome in Washington or in Sunni capitals such as Riyadh, an eventual victory of Assad will bring about an end to the large-scale fighting that is seen now. Though pro-Assad forces have sustained large casualties, they have successfully repelled rebel forces weakened by simultaneous fighting against both Assad and ISIS. By providing a more robust amount of advanced weaponry and training to various rebel factions, the U.S. may actually prolong the conflict that has already devastated and inflamed sectarian tension around the Islamic world. Even if the rebels were to gain momentum from U.S. support, they would painstakingly have to recapture large territories where Assad’s forces are firmly entrenched. This could take many months, if not years, translating into more death and civilian displacement.
2) Large support of the opposition stands to tip the scale greatly in their favor. An opposition victory could bring about some level of retribution in the form of ethnic cleansing, extrajudicial killings in the form of public executions to anyone deemed sympathetic to the regime, seizures of property, and large-scale oppression of Shia Muslims in Syria. As the House of Assad stems from the Alawite community, a Shia religious minority that is indigenous to Syria numbering around 2.5 million, many Shia are at serious risk as many Sunnis associate them exclusively with the regime. Alawites are, percentage-wise, highly represented among the ranks of the military, mukhabarat (intelligence) and security forces. Many regime soldiers, upon the defeat of Assad’s government, will try to rejoin their communities. Rebel victors, vengeful of the suffering of Sunni communities from Assad’s relentless use of barrel bombs, may return to these areas seeking retribution against former regime soldiers. As we have seen so many times throughout history, this will undoubtedly include the killings of uninvolved parties in the conflict—creating a far worse humanitarian crisis that would then be associated with U.S. support.
3) Supporting rebel factions in the fight against Assad will stand to shift the balance in favor of Sunni forces. These forces, varying from the moderate Free Syrian Army and moderate Islamist groups such as the Tawhid Brigades to more outright conservative Islamist forces like Jabat al-Nusra, cooperate too closely for Washington to effectively regulate whose hands are benefitting from U.S. support. Furthermore, since allegiances commonly change within these forces, the U.S. cannot control equipment spreading into different groups in Syria and beyond.
4) There is a strong possibility that Syrian rebels will take advantage of U.S. provided equipment and training for future Jihad or their own political aspirations. Many members of Islamist opposition groups such as Jabat al-Nusra are Sunni Muslims from other parts of the world, hailing from Chechnya, Europe, and other parts of the Middle East. These fighters can apply what they learned in Syria to their own country’s local political struggles. Fighters accustomed to operating advanced anti-vehicle and anti-air weapon systems, on the streets of Aleppo, for instance, will someday prove to be a deadly match for their home country’s government. Furthermore, more Islamist forces such as al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, a loose merger of several Islamic rebel groups, can sell U.S.-provided equipment to the international Jihadist network for large sums of money. Many Syrian opposition groups do not have reservations about providing extremist organizations around the globe with weapons as long as the price is right. Providing rebel groups with weapons and training not only makes them deadlier, it supports one of the main ways in which related terrorist groups fund themselves—through complex networks of criminal enterprises. In fact, it would not be surprising if U.S. weapons given to the opposition resurfaced in future conflicts used this time against U.S. or European targets.
5) Lastly, the vacuum left by the defeat of ISIS—who commands over large swaths of territory, huge stockpiles of weapons, thousands of fighters and a large financial base—presents a unique opportunity for newly empowered opposition groups to try and seize as much power as possible. Unwilling to concede to other rebel groups, various opposition forces may begin fighting one another on a larger-scale. Eventually, this could push Syria into an even deeper, more brutal conflict. Moreover, any outright defeat of Assad could also create a similar power vacuum for opposition groups to contend with; but, thanks to U.S. support, they will have better training and better weapons.
We have to remember, despite the rising support for the arming and training of Sunni rebels in Syria, there are considerable precautions to take if Washington is to avoid becoming entangled in even deeper conflict in the Middle East and around the world.
Matthew Murphy is a Communications intern at EWI's New York City office. Previously, he has interned with the American Jewish Committee and the Clinton Global Initiative.