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The Hidden Side of the US Train and Equip Program for Syria’s Opposition

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If anyone speaks, however cautiously, about Syria’s existence as a sovereign state, one must admit that the line between the opposing sides—ISIL and the foreign Jihadists fighting with it on the one hand and Hezbollah, Iraqi, Pakistani and Iranian militias on the other—disappears.   ISIL, by definition, does not recognize the Nation-State as a matter of principle, not in Syria, nor anywhere else.  At the same time, Pro-Assad foreign fighters are coming from all over the place to participate in a fight on foreign land.  Both sides do this for ideological and sectarian reasons.  But the world condemns only one side—ISIL.

If the policy of President Obama were truly based on the principles of international law, non-intervention, fighting terrorism, aiding civilians who are subjected to brutal collective punishment by a dictator, or any of the other moral claims loudly repeated by the White House since the start of Obama’s presidency, he would at least criticize the Iranian role in Syria.  But Obama never did and never will.  Iran and Hezbollah do not respect international law; they intervene openly in Syria, and Syrian civilians are dying every day.  Yet, the President neither has a strategy for solving this travesty, nor will he allow others to do what should be done, as we will see shortly.

Once the effects of these grand words from the President expose that they are empty phrases, the true position of the President’s policy of nothing appears as it really is: naked and unsustainable.  But then under criticism both in the US and from the rest of the World, at least on moral grounds, the White House found shelter in the “train and equip” program.

Yet, determined as always to impose its deep misconception of the “Syrian problem” (Read: “regional problem,”) the US administration instructed the opposition fighters vetted for the program that their mission is to fight only ISIL,–never Assad.

This hidden side of the train and equip program became public with the surprising statement by a leader of a group of 1,000 opposition fighters vetted for the program, who openly said that he and his men are mulling over the idea of leaving the program after receiving the prior condition from “the Americans” in Turkey that they should fight only ISIL and that they will not be “allowed” to fight Assad’s troops or their allies, that is, the Iranian, Hezbollah and other militias.

The leader of the opposition group, Mustafa Al Sejery, described the US conditions publicly in detail last week. “The Americans told us that the short list of our targets after being trained contains one group: ISIL,” he said.  “Our group fought ISIL heroically in the Latakia countryside.  We considered the US program a helpful step for fighting both ISIL and Assad so as to live in a free Syria. But to our surprise, the Americans told us that we will not be allowed to fight Assad and his allies. We are considering pulling out of this suspicious program. We will fight the enemies of our people. These enemies are Bashar Al Assad and ISIL.”

Al Sejery said that “if the US wants to help us, it can just stop the barrel bombs of Assad that were even condemned by the UN Security Council, instead of telling us to avoid trying to shoot at the planes which kill our people every day.” “We have choices for fighting Assad other than the US program. We will fight Assad and ISIL regardless of the conditions of the US or anybody else,” he added.

That explains the reasons why we often hear the conspiracy theorists in Syria and the region repeat the same questions over and over again: Is President Obama trying to avoid offending the Iranians to get his nuclear deal?  Does he have a secret arrangement with Tehran concerning Syria?  If he says that he believes Assad has lost all legitimacy and that Assad is the reason that ISIL expanded into Syria, why did Obama change his “red line” against any use of chemical weapons by the regime to barring any attacks against the very same regime?

The President seems to have indeed repositioned his “red line” to protecting Assad instead of attacking his forces. But why? How could that be consistent with all the rhetoric of the administration? Could that be the real logical reason why the Administration doesn’t have a strategy to fight ISIL?  In other words, could the self-imposed restraints coming from the President’s Iran policy have crippled the US in both Syria and Iraq? In that case, the questions of the “conspiracy theorists” may make sense.

Still, it could be argued that such questions stem from a very subjective analysis of the situation in Syria.  Therefore, let us look at an objective view on how to deal with Assad from the same UN diplomat who said that Assad must be “part of the solution” as recently as last February.

Staffan de Mistura said at a meeting with Syrian American organizations held in Geneva on the 29th of May that Assad should go, and that the US should use force to pressure him to go.  Is de Mistura also subjective?

If the US merely showed the serious intention that it may hit Assad’s forces, without even shooting a bullet, the Syrian president would run to the negotiating table and there would be a way to unify the Syrian opposition and the Syrian army to fight side by side against the terrorists of ISIL or any other brand. But instead of having a strategy to fight ISIL, we have President Obama.

Burkina Faso has nothing to do with the Syrian conflict. But the President cannot reduce the United States to the role of that country. Trying to do that would indeed reduce the US to the level of any other country instead of the power that has countless interests in the Middle East–and which is risking eventually losing them along with its friends and allies.

As for the conditions of “the Americans” in the train and equip program in Turkey, what should be clearly understood is that both Assad and ISIL has to be perceived as a “totality”. The one justifies the existence of the other. So long as Assad is in Syria, ISIL will be there as well.

The concept of keeping Assad in for a couple of transitional years before moving forward, which represents the basis of the Russian and Egyptian concept of how to handle the conflict in Syria, will not work. The ground of the conflict has moved far beyond the point when this was still possible. Cairo does not want Assad to remain in power for the long term. But even more, it does not want to see the conflict continue the way it now is. Theoretically, this is an understandable calculation.  Practically, however, it is wishful thinking. The crowd which gathered in Cairo recently to discuss ways out of the crisis does not have the force on the ground. That brings back the echoes of the memorable question: How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?