U.S. recruits in Syria more focused on toppling Assad than fighting Islamic State

Obama's plan plagued by conflicting priorities

WASHINGTON, D.C. - President Barack Obama has vowed not to put American "boots on the ground" to oppose Syrian President Bashar Assad or the Islamist radicals who control the north. But that doesn't mean Washington lacks fighters in the civil war-wracked nation. They’re mostly moderate local villagers clad in sandals or sneakers. They're also poorly armed, lack much combat training and – here is the part Washington isn’t telling you -- they increasingly reject the priority of eliminating violent extremists, such as the Islamic State.

What these moderate rebels want to do is unseat Assad, a goal the White House and U.S. lawmakers officially support but have done little to advance. Armed opposition in the majority-Sunni Muslim country against Assad's authoritarian regime -- dominated by the Alawite Shiite sect -- began more than three years ago, well before the Islamic State rose in strength. Since then, Assad's military attacks against his own people, including chemical strikes last year, have only fueled the opposition's desire to bring him down.

That difference in priorities is why Obama's no-boots policy against the Islamic State and other violent extremists who span the Syria-Iraq border may not work. It's fraught with risks and contradictions -- a point made by outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a confidential memo to the White House in October.

Obama announced in September that in addition to training Iraqi soldiers, Washington would conduct airstrikes up north against extremists on both sides of the border with Syria. But many U.S.-supported villagers complain that airpower has come too little and too late to make a real difference in either nation.

Washington also plans to launch an effort to train 5,000 moderate rebels in the north – among a variety of militias across the nation under the "Free Syrian Army" umbrella. But experts are beginning to wonder if that initiative is doomed before it begins in February, with the U.S.-supported Free Syrian Army itself possibly on the verge of collapse.

Meanwhile, the United States has been working quietly with Jordan and Saudi Arabia to support moderate Syrian rebels in the south, an effort initially aimed at undermining Assad. These coalition-backed fighters made substantial gains recently, moving close to the capital in Damascus.

In theory, moderate rebels based in southern Syria also might play a key role as the West’s “boots on the ground” in a future "left hook" against the Islamic State up north.

The idea of using rebels to weaken the Islamic State "is promising, but that is also a function of how serious Washington is," Murhaf Jouejati, a professor at National Defense University, said in a phone interview.

"If Washington is serious and does train and equip them correctly and adequately, then yes, they could be a counterweight to ISIS and prevent the entry of ISIS into the south," he said, referring to the Islamic State.

But this is the Middle East, so nothing is easy. Adversaries are literally at each other's throats one moment and strange bedfellows the next.

The secretive U.S.-Saudi-Jordanian coalition to train and command Syrian militants has been riddled with conflicting objectives virtually from its inception roughly 18 months ago, regional experts say. This so-called "southern command" has largely used moderate militants in the area not to undermine Assad but to secure the Jordanian and Israeli borders against extremists.

"They were a paid Praetorian Guard" -- bodyguards used by Roman emperors -- "and they didn't like it," Joshua Landis, a scholar at the University of Oklahoma, said in an interview.

The southern command has begun trying to refocus rebel firepower against the Islamic State inside Syria. But neither the border patrol nor the anti-extremist mission helps the moderate militants attain their top priority: tossing out Assad.

"Saudi Arabia tried to put together a tribal leadership for the southern command that was going to be out of Amman, Jordan, and it didn't work," Landis said. Because of the conflicting priorities, "it's fallen apart."

In May 2013, the Jordan-based alliance covertly directed rebels to sit out a fight near the southern city of Daraa against Assad’s troops, hoping the government forces would weaken another rebel group that Washington identifies as terrorists, known as the Nusra Front. It worked, except Nusra retaliated against the moderate rebels for the pullout out by kidnapping their leader and accusing him of being a CIA spy. It’s assumed the moderate rebel leader -- a key figure in the U.S.-supported coalition forces -- was later executed.

By using local Syrian fighters for border control and convincing them to stay out of that key southern battle against Assad's military, the U.S. and its partners have alienated many in Syria's moderate tribes, experts say.

Some disaffected Free Syrian Army rebels have even joined the ranks of the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, which has kept the Damascus government's ouster in its sights. Landis said this turn of events "showed the total weakness of the American position."

"One can see why the opposition militias would be conflicted regarding the priorities of their coalition backers on the one hand and their own priority [on the other], which is to take down Assad," said Steven Simon, a former Obama National Security Council director for the Middle East and North Africa.

The southern command itself has become disjointed.

Each regional player is "trying to each strengthen its own faction, its own loyalists," Jouejati said. "That is exacerbating the fragmentation in the opposition."

In contrast to the U.S.-backed coalition's disarray, "Nusra and ISIS are more organized and lately more effective in battling Assad," Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said by email.

Meanwhile, a number of U.S.-supported Syrian clans appear to be playing a double game.

"At least some groups are thought to have secretly pledged fealty to ISIS or al-Nusra in order to have it both ways," said Simon, now a Dartmouth scholar. These rebels "maintain access to money, funding and weapons from the coalition while avoiding potentially disastrous conflict with the jihadist wing of the opposition," he said.

"We here, from a distance, have a tendency to look at things in black and white," Jouejati said. "But on the ground, it's really locally that the decisions are taken, and it's for tactical reasons."

Obama has said his plan is to partner with indigenous moderates to vanquish the radical Islamists. The problem for Washington is that those moderates are still fighting a civil war, and not a war against violent extremists.

Elaine M. Grossman is a veteran international security reporter and contributing correspondent at National Journal.

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