September 17, 2014

The Free Syrian Army as our "boots on the ground" in Syria?

Free Syrian Army commander Colonel Riyadh al-As'ad

Secretary of State John Kerry looks awful - tired, slow and fumbling for words. That comes from trying to convince people that he has assembled a coalition willing to confront the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the Islamic Caliphate, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria/Levant (ISIS or ISIL).

The reason the Secretary is having a problem convincing the American public, our allies, or anyone else that there is a viable coalition to effectively combat the radical Islamist terrorist group is simple - there isn't a viable coalition.

Let's review the situation in basic terms while setting aside the rhetoric used by the Secretary and the Obama Administration.

President Obama was quite clear in his address to the nation on September 10. He said, "America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat. Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL...."

Most people realize by now that ISIS/ISIL controls territory the size of New England in western Iraq and eastern Syria. To effectively "degrade, and ultimately destroy" the organization, it must be confronted in the entire area it controls - in both countries. In Iraq, that appears to be doable without American ground forces. American airpower coupled with a revitalized Iraqi Army - that means with restored effective leadership - and the now better-equipped Kurdish peshmerga fighters have been able to stop ISIS's momentum and will soon begin the process of rolling them back and either destroying them in place or pushing them back into Syria.

It is their presence in Syria that is problematic.

The President continued, "In Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition. Tonight, I again call on Congress to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters. In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people; a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL..."

Sounds good, right? To many, the President's words are interpreted as meaning that the United States is going to provide assistance to this undefined "Syrian opposition" and that organization will be our "boots on the ground" and operate in the same manner as the Iraqi Army and Kurdish peshmerga - a ground force taking on ISIS supported by American airpower.

The group the President is referring to is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), headed by former Syrian Air Force Colonel Riyadh al-As'ad (different Arabic spelling than Syrian president al-Asad). While I applaud increased American support to the FSA, it is important to realize that the FSA is not focused on fighting ISIS - it's goal, its reason for existence, is the overthrow of the Ba'th Party regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. The only time the FSA has confronted ISIS militarily has been to defend itself when ISIS sought to expand its area of control into FSA-held areas.

To listen to the President, Secretary Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, the FSA will serve as the ground component of this nebulous coalition that will take on ISIS. Secretary Hagel and General Dempsey reiterated this as late as September 16 in a Congressional hearing. That claim is interesting in light of the statements of FSA Colonel al-As'ad that he is not interested in joining the U.S. led coalition to fight ISIS - he remains focused on the removal of the al-Asad regime in Damascus.

In an interview, Colonel al-As'ad remarked that he would work with an American led coalition if he received a commitment that the United States would support him in the removal of the Syrian regime in addition to its fight against ISIS. Thus far, the Administration has not made that clear to the colonel. In any case, I support funding, arming and training the Free Syrian Army. However, if we think they are going to act as our "boots on the ground" to combat ISIS, we need to clarify that with the FSA.

As far as the coalition goes, I have yet to see anyone commit to military action in Syria. The French have conducted reconnaissance flights over Syria, but the British have been silent, as have most of the other members of the "broad coalition." In fact, there are almost no offers to provide anything more than loosely defined "support."

I think the reality that none of our so-called "partners" are interested in putting forces into or over Syria has begun to sink in with the leadership in Washington. Note that General Dempsey told the Congressional committee that the goal of the U.S. operation is now to destroy ISIS in Iraq, but to only "disrupt" it in Syria. That is not what the President said in his address to the nation. It appears that the Administration is beginning to realize that unless we determine that ISIS is a direct, imminent threat to the United States that must be addressed by our own armed forces, the best we can hope for in Syria is to "disrupt."

So which is it, Mr President? ISIS is one organization - present in both Iraq and Syria. Are we going to destroy it or merely disrupt it? I suspect that if you believe that the FSA is going to be your boots on the ground in Syria, we will have to settle for disrupt.