As negotiations continue to uphold a teetering ceasefire in Syria, the primary U.S. effort in Syria should be a bottom-up strategy to build cohesive, moderate, armed opposition institutions with a regional focus, says a new report from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). The report, “From the Bottom, Up: A Strategy for U.S. Military Support to Syria’s Armed Opposition,” written by Middle East Security Program researcher Nicholas Heras examines in-depth the current state of U.S. support for opposition groups in each region and makes a case for scaling up that support.
If the United States is seeking a transition from the Assad regime that does not lead to the enduring rule of ideological extremist organizations throughout Syria, it will need to become the decisive influence that shifts the military balance on the ground in rebel-ruled areas in favor of the politically moderate armed opposition, the report contends:
Therefore, the primary U.S. effort should be on a bottom-up strategy for building cohesive, moderate armed opposition institutions with a regional focus that is tailored for each individual region within Syria. This line of effort depends on providing incentives for the already U.S.-vetted moderate armed opposition groups to join together into larger regional coalitions with genuinely unified command.
Over time, as these moderate rebel institutions become the center of gravity in their respective regions and marginalize or defeat ideological extremist organizations, they can be brought together to form larger civil-military structures and govern the predominately Sunni rebel– ruled areas inside of Syria. These regional structures can then interact with the remnants of the Assad regime and its loyalist forces to work toward achieving a long-term political solution to the Syrian civil war, such as a federalized Syria. While this approach may seem complex and difficult to execute, there are already examples inside Syria, especially in the south near the Jordanian border, where American strategy to support the armed opposition has had the most success. Indeed, it is the only approach to arming the Syrian opposition that has shown any success over the course of the civil war.
At a recent security conference, Sergei Afanasyev the deputy head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Intelligence Directorate (the GRU), warned that Russian military experts estimated that Daesh–the self-designated Islamic State and also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS)–had some 33,000 armed fighters in the Middle East, 14,000 in Syria and 19,000 in Iraq, Richard Weitz writes for The National Interest:
Afanasyev …..saw the rise of a “Terrorist Internationale” in Africa, led by Boko Haram with thousands of members, in destructive competition with the al-Qaeda affiliated groups of the continent, that risks destabilizing the whole of Africa.
Many of the Middle Eastern speakers at the Conference praised Russia’s positive contributions to fighting terrorism. Russian government propaganda about Western democracy promotion exacerbating regional instability and Western indecisiveness in the face of Islamist terrorism appealed to some in the region.