Things aren’t looking good for Bashar al-Assad these days. He’s almost totally lost control of Idlib Province in the past two months, to a rebel coalition mostly controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra and the equally Islamist, albeit not al-Qaeda affiliated (there are links, but they fall short of outright affiliation), Ahrar al-Sham. That loss gives the resurgent rebels a secure base from which to threaten both the Alawite centers of Syria’s northwestern coastal region and the strategically important port city of Latakia. Reports suggest that government forces are struggling to cope with desertions and internal dissension, and that the cumulative toll of the four year war, both military and economic, is finally starting to wear the Assad side down. Assad has responded, as he always does to any setback, by dropping barrel bombs on civilians, only lately he seems to have started (or gone back to?) putting chemical weapons (chlorine gas) in those barrels.
I look at the situation in Syria in my newest LobeLog piece and how the US has responded to it, or failed to respond to it:
Despite these concerns, the US appears to be no closer to implementing a Syria strategy than it was four years ago. Plans, months in the making, to train and equip a large force of moderate rebels to fight IS, appear to be collapsing before they even get under way. It was a dubious strategy in the first place, given the challenge of separating moderates from Islamists and given the fact that even moderate rebels see Assad, not IS, as their primary enemy. Complicating matters for the administration is the fact that regional US allies, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, have begun openly aiding the Nusra-led coalition with money and advanced weaponry, though they insist that this aid is only going to moderate elements of the coalition and will enable them to establish an equal footing with their Islamist counterparts. It is not at all clear how those nations plan to ensure that their aid only winds up in the hands of moderates, or whether their definition of “moderate” aligns with Washington’s.
The Obama administration continues to push for a negotiated settlement to the fighting through another round of peace talks in Geneva. Although such negotiations offer the best chance of minimizing future civilian casualties and managing the post-Assad transition, it is difficult to see how these talks can have any chance of success when they exclude those Islamist groups who are currently the dominant rebel force on the ground. Meanwhile, the usual suspects in Congress continue to rattle sabers for an American invasion of Syria, an idea that risks, to say the least, violating President Obama’s “don’t do stupid ****” principle.
There are reports today that the US program to train up 15,000 moderate rebels is finally starting up, but there are so many problems with this effort that it’s hard to figure out how it could succeed. For one thing there’s the aforementioned total disconnect between American aims (fighting ISIS first, then maybe Assad and/or Nusra) and the rebels’ aims (fighting Assad first, then probably ISIS, and Nusra maybe not at all). For another, training and arming a 15,000 man rebel army is going to take years, and at the rate the war is going this whole program could well be too little, way too late. What is Washington going to do if it looks like Nusra is about to take over Damascus? Hopefully somebody is at least planning for this possibility.