The U.S. intelligence community has come up with new estimates on the disparate rebel forces in Syria’s civil war that suggest peace is out of reach in the foreseeable future.
The numbers: Up to 110,000 anti-government fighters are split between 1,600 groups that include 7,000 foreigners from around 50 countries in the Muslim world, Europe, the United States and Canada.
At a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee last week, America’s spy chief, James Clapper, added that those fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad included 26,000 extremists in organizations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Nusra Front, both affiliates of Al-Qaeda. Clapper described Syria as a “huge magnet for extremists” and likened the country to Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas (FATA), which became a haven for Al-Qaeda’s leaders after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
According to Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the intelligence committee, the threat from Syria has grown so much over the past year that there was now “a real prospect” the war-torn country could turn into a launching pad for attacks on the United States and other countries. The reason: “Large swathes of Syria are beyond the regime’s control or that of the moderate opposition.”
The dire warnings from Washington coincided with peace talks in Geneva that brought together representatives of the Assad government and the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, whose exile leaders have limited influence on military groups considered moderate and absolutely no influence on ISIS, the Nusra Front or the foreign jihadists who have been flocking to Syria in increasing numbers as the war ground on.
How to reconcile the parallel universes of combat on the ground and the search for a political solution is a question to which no one appears to have a good answer. Since the Syrian conflict morphed from peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations three years ago to an armed uprising to a many-sided civil war, outside powers have fueled the fighting by pumping in weapons and money. The Assad regime, whose forces vastly outnumber the rebels, has been supplied by Russia and Iran. Islamist groups have counted on financial and military support from Saudi Arabia and Gulf states. The outgunned Free Syrian Army has received light equipment from the U.S.
In his State of the Union speech on Jan. 28, President Barack Obama appeared to promise a continued flow of assistance by saying that “in Syria, we’ll support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks.” To some, this sounded like implicit acceptance of the Assad government’s contention that it is engaged in a war against terrorists. Exactly how to make sure that weapons meant for secular rebels do not fall into the hands of extremists is another unanswered question.
Obama’s policy on Syria has been derided by conservative critics as indecisive and vacillating, doing too little, too late. In an interview with the New Yorker magazine last month, the president sounded indignant about such charges: “I’m haunted by what’s happened [in Syria]. I’m not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war ... And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we’d have a peaceful transition, it’s magical thinking.”
One might argue that it is equally magical thinking to hope that a peace process without the involvement of one of the main players in the conflict could end the bloodletting in Syria, where the death toll now exceeds 130,000 people. Iran, a pillar of support for the Assad regime, was invited by U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon three days before the opening session of the peace talks.
“I believe strongly that Iran needs to be part of the solution to the Syrian crisis,” he said. Just a day later, he rescinded the invitation, under pressure from the U.S., the Syrian opposition delegation to the talks, and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main rival for regional influence.
The first round of talks between representatives of the Assad government and the opposition ended on Jan. 31 without agreement on anything substantive. A second round is expected to begin around Feb. 10.
There is a shortage of optimistic forecasts but there is no shortage of warnings that the longer the fighting lasts, the more difficult it will be to weaken the influence of extremists or hasten the formation of a transitional government without Assad – Washington’s declared aim for the peace process.
A series of predictions from Obama and his aides on the downfall of the iron-fisted Assad have highlighted a large gap between rhetoric and reality.
Among memorable Obama assertions, in his 2012 State of the Union address: “In Syria, I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change cannot be reversed.”
Two years and more than 100,000 dead Syrians later, that discovery is still pending.
Bernd Debusmann is a former Reuters world affairs columnist. This article was written exclusively for The Daily Star.