Through all five of its chaotic years, one thing has remained consistent in Syria’s civil war: the United States’ desire to fund, train, and equip moderate Syrian militants. Both the Obama administration and Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton have unveiled plans to vet and fund moderate opposition groups. However, in attempting to appeal to Syria’s moderates, the United States is catering to a vanishing demographic and, in some cases, is supporting groups that cooperate with the militant organizations it seeks to destroy, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
But there is a better option: instead of funding militant groups, the United States should take advantage of its superior military and coordinate close air support for a larger number of Syrian opposition forces. Close air support gives the United States an opportunity to supplant extremists as key military allies to the Assad regime’s opponents, has the potential to convince Syrian groups to embrace moderate ideals, and is a form of aid that cannot be transferred to extremist groups. In short, the best way for the United States to accomplish its goals of eliminating extremists and compel Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to begin peace negotiations is to increase military — instead of financial — aid to Syria’s opposition.
Out of the thousands of militant groups operating in Syria, the United States has partnered extensively with both the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Southern Front, which are each actively engaged in campaigns against ISIL in Southern and Eastern Syria (and are receiving significant U.S. funding and military aid). While these groups have been able to recover territory from ISIL in the South and East, they have had limited success in Northern and Western Syria, where opposition groups have developed close military relationships with extremists in an effort to combat the Assad Regime. Given this dynamic, as well as Turkey’s decision to designate the YPG as a terrorist organization, the United States is smartly searching for additional partners in Northern Syria.
However, the United State’s insistence on funding Syria’s moderates prevents it from gaining traction in Northern and Western Syria. Since the war’s outbreak, the total number of moderate organizations has declined as more militants have embraced radical ideals. Indeed, professing a detailed ideology at all can be dangerous. For example, the Sunni/Salafi Ahrar al-Sham group is by no means moderate, but its criticism of ISIL emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s decision to classify non-ISIL groups as infidels contributed to the beginning of the war between ISIL and the larger Sunni opposition. Ahrar al-Sham has been able to weather this conflict despite losing 50 leaders in an alleged ISIL attack, but many groups with less military ability might profess vaguely extreme ideologies in order to avoid angering larger extremist groups such as ISIL. As a result, the United States is struggling to locate openly moderate groups to fund.
In addition to a decline in moderate groups, there has been a decline in fighters loyal to established moderate groups. While a group’s leadership may profess moderate ideologies, lower level fighters often chose to join groups based on their battle effectiveness, not ideology. When moderate groups lose ground in the conflict, fighters often defect to extremist groups. In effect the United State’s decision to fund and train moderate groups such as D30 and the so-called Free Syrian Army — there is debate as to whether the FSA is a group or just a brand — ultimately gave former Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly known as Al-Nusra) highly skilled fighters and U.S. weapons after those fighters defected from their moderate former groups. Moreover, since groups like Fatah al-Sham deliberately attack and splinter U.S.-backed groups, funding moderate groups often indirectly supports extremists.
The subject of alliances is related to a further problem with funding moderates: the United States receives little leverage to influence alliances amongst militant groups. Within the Syrian conflict, the United States is one of many countries providing aid to the opposition. Therefore, if the United States threatened to stop funding a group that cooperated with extremists, the group could easily negotiate funding from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and a number of militant networks in the Gulf that would like to see the Assad Regime fall. This phenomenon might explain why groups face no repercussions for forming limited partnerships with extremists, such as when the U.S.–backed moderate FSA began cooperating with ISIL and Fatah al-Sham to fight Hezbollah in Lebanon. In all, the United States is backing itself into a corner by targeting its funding at moderates. It needs a better way of pursuing its interests in the conflict without accidentally aiding extremists.
Instead of providing opposition groups with funding, the United States should provide them with close air support (ability to call in airstrikes during battles, etc) in exchange for ceasing to coordinate attacks with extremist groups. Aside from directly targeting extremists, offering air support to more opposition groups furthers the United State’s goal of defeating ISIL and Fatah al-Sham because it disrupts the traditional military relationships that exist in Northern and Western Syria. While ISIL often operates alone, Fatah al-Sham has integrated itself with the Syrian opposition to the point where airstrikes against the group as a whole could jeopardize the battle for Syrian “hearts and minds.” However these military relationships have been challenged during brief ceasefires when groups grow less dependent on Fatah al-Sham for their military survival. In lieu of a lasting ceasefire, U.S. efforts to supplant Fatah al-Sham as a key military ally by offering continuous air support could erode Fatah al-Sham’s image as a necessary component of a functional Syrian opposition, and would allow the United States to expand its campaign against extremists without angering Syrian citizens.
The second advantage with providing air support is that the United States can offer its military advantage in exchange for groups espousing moderate ideals. When groups appeal to the United States for aid (of any sort), they often express moderate ideals (see a Washington Post op-ed by a member of Ahrar al-Sham). The prospect of monetary aid from the U.S. divided leaders of Northern Syrian groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, where approximately half supported moderating their ideological claims in order to appeal to the United States while the other half wanted to reaffirm their ties to Fatah al-Sham. Ahrar al-Sham has not been given any form of U.S. aid due to its close relationship with Fatah al-Sham, but the debate amongst Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders signals that the prospect of U.S. military aid might inspire groups that are less embedded with Fatah al-Sham to express moderate ideals in order to gain a key military ally.
The third and final advantage of offering airstrikes is that only the United States controls whether or not the airstrikes happen. This enforces a measure of accountability to the United States and the international community, where groups must continue to spurn cooperation with extremists and espouse moderate ideals. Furthermore, airstrikes are not tangible goods and cannot accidentally fall into the hands of extremist groups in the way American weapons have. Therefore the control afforded by using airstrikes allows the United States to take a more active role in affecting conditions on the ground and combating extremism in Syria.
While providing air support is far superior to providing funding, there are still distinct challenges to adopting this policy. The United States could use existing military bases in Jordan to store fighter planes or drones, but it would need to embed U.S. soldiers within militant groups supported by the airstrikes in order to ensure that the close air support does not target other moderate groups. Yet expanding ground troop presence could lead to domestic audience costs for the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton after promises to limit the military’s role in Syria.
Still, the biggest challenge with providing air support is determining who to target. While the United States would be inclined to increase its air campaign against ISIL and Fatah al-Sham, it can only replace extremist groups as the Sunni opposition’s primary military ally if it targets the Assad Regime.
Fundamentally, the Assad Regime threatens the overall Syrian opposition more than any other warring party. In the first half of 2015, the Assad Regime killed almost seven times as many people as ISIL, and the Regime has repeatedly committed war crimes against opposition-held areas, including deploying chemical weapons and using siege tactics against civilians. As a result, the United State’s reluctance to target the Assad Regime despite its frequent atrocities and the immediate threat it poses to local militants has damaged U.S. credibility among the Sunni opposition. Analyst Charles Lister notes that if it does not directly target Russian forces, the United States would face little resistance if it targets the Assad Regime in retaliation for war crimes (such as chlorine-bombing Aleppo). In addition, targeting the Regime could provide some coercive pressure and compel Assad to abide by a more permanent ceasefire. Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton has indicated that she will not prioritize the fight against Assad, and Donald Trump will not fight Assad, as he prefers to let ISIL destroy the Syrian Regime (yes he actually said this, and it’s as bad of an idea as you think it is).
In the coming months, U.S. policy makers must critically reevaluate their priorities in Syria, especially as warring parties fail to respect the recent ceasefire. Now that Assad has violated the nationwide ceasefire (as he has done with all others), the United States cannot return to the status quo of “funding moderates” in Northern and Western Syria and hoping for the best. While the Syrian conflict remains incredibly complex, if the United States can overcome its hesitancy to expand the role of its ground troops and target the Assad Regime directly, it can more successfully combat extremism and foster moderate ideals among Syria’s opposition. In the end, increased U.S. military aid in the form of airstrikes is the best way to bring the Syrian revolution back to its original form: an uprising of moderate Syrians against a cruel dictator.
Sebastian Alarcon would like to thank Professor Martha Crenshaw (Senior Fellow at CISAC and FSI) and Mark Jacobsen (PhD. Candidate, Stanford Political Science) for their advice on this article.
Sebastian Alarcon, a junior studying political science, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.