THE BLOG
09/24/2014 02:54 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

The Obama Administration's Dangerous Game with Moderate Syrian Rebels

In his September 10, 2014 address, President Obama declared that cooperation with the Syrian opposition was an integral pillar of his strategy for confronting ISIS. On the surface, forging a partnership with Syrian moderates appears to be the ideal approach for the US to pursue. Beyond the short-term goal of defeating ISIS, providing military support for the rebels should temper feelings of betrayal engendered by the West's inaction in their struggle against Bashar Al-Assad. Quelling anti-Western sentiments amongst Syrian Sunnis theoretically should also enhance the prospects of rebels conciliatory towards the West taking over if Assad is removed from power.

While this idealistic narrative has received rare bipartisan consensus in recent weeks, it is sadly a myopic depiction that contradicts the circumstances on the ground. In many ways, US involvement in Syria against ISIS is 1980s Afghanistan in redux: an intervention that results in the accidental strengthening of America's enemies.

My grim assessment of US policy in Syria stems primarily from the immense challenges in ascertaining who is "moderate" in Syria. The recent non-aggression pact between Syrian rebels and ISIS in the outskirts of Damascus clearly indicates that their interests are not always diametrically opposed to one another. Because both factions share a common enemy in Assad, Syrian rebels openly courted jihadists into their military ranks. The integration of both factions in rebel brigades makes it almost impossible to isolate the moderate members from ISIS ones, increasing the risk of US arms ending up in the hands of the very extremists that the US is trying to suppress.

Even if US intelligence services can effectively classify Syrian rebels in some brigades, arming one faction over another will increase the risk of an ideological schism amongst opposition forces should the Baathist regime fall. If moderate Syrian rebels gain the weaponry to prevail against Assad and attempt to form a progressive government, a reincarnation of ISIS could rally Syrian Islamists to topple that regime by claiming that moderate rebels are American stooges. Ironically, America's arming of Syrian rebels to defeat ISIS could jeopardize its long-term security by facilitating the rise of an even more radical faction that regards itself as being directly at war with the United States.

The second highly problematic aspect of the Obama administration's strategy is its assumption that the US can combat ISIS in Syria without strengthening Assad's hold on power. The rise of ISIS has occurred at an opportune moment for the Baathist regime, so much so, that David Blair of the National Post recently speculated that Assad may be covertly enhancing ISIS's capabilities in order to position himself as the sole guarantor of stability in Syria.

While President Obama is correct in stating that Assad's atrocities have permanently damaged his legitimacy amongst the Syrian people, brazenly defying Syria's sovereignty is a dangerous move. Russia, Assad's primary international patron, has vociferously condemned a potential US military action in Syria as a violation of international law. Iran has also rushed to the defense of the Syrian regime claiming that US counter-terrorism efforts against ISIS are false pretexts and merely a cynical ploy to advance American interests in the region.

Baathist Syria risks becoming an obstructionist to US efforts to combat ISIS. In addition, the Assad regime's support for Sunni insurgents in Iraq after the 2003 war indicates that containing American influence can trump sectarian loyalties in times of crisis. If his post-2003 foreign policy is a litmus test of what is to come, it is conceivable that Assad could covertly back ISIS operations in Iraq in order to dilute American air power and leave the US mired in a two-front war. Even though President Obama has drawn another red line on shooting down US planes that fly over Syria, and is considering a campaign to undermine Syrian air defenses, Assad's 2013 use of chemical weapons indicates that he could test American resolve once again by shooting down a US plane. Such a scenario would leave the United States with the unpalatable choices of embarking on a full-scale regime change mission in Syria or backing down like Clinton was forced to do as American casualties mounted in 1994, which would further embolden ISIS.

In order to neutralize these risks, the Obama administration should pursue a two-track strategy against ISIS. The first-track involves "starving the beast": restricting ISIS's ability to fund its operations as much as possible. Since Iraq provides lucrative sources of potential oil wealth and has established political actors that are willing to cooperate with the US against ISIS (the Shia Iraqi government and Kurdish Peshmerga), pursuing a strategy that is Iraq-focused in the initial stages would be optimal. The United States should escalate pressure on Saudi Arabia and Qatar to crack down on private donations to ISIS, and should that fail, freeze assets of companies backing ISIS. Further engagement with the Arab League and the decline of ISIS's influence in Iraq under American leadership will allow the US to pursue the second-track of its strategy, defeating ISIS in Syria from a position of much greater strength.

The degree to which hostile regional actors will test American resolve and the willingness of Obama to escalate military efforts will go a long way in determining the success of the anti-ISIS campaign. However, the US military, by pursuing an ambiguously defined and premature intervention in Syria is ironically playing right into the hands of both ISIS and Assad to the detriment of America's national security.