At Large

Roads to Damascus

Why aiding insurgent groups is so often self-defeating.

By 9.4.13

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Advice pours into the White House and the Pentagon daily on how to avoid a broad commitment in the Syrian civil war. At the same time this advice generally aims at arming select rebel groups that are not connected with other rebels who are part of the large al Qaeda-linked complex now also fighting the Assad regime. An overly simple answer to a complex problem.

Aiding an insurgency that has multiple leaderships and different motivations is more the norm than it might appear. Even groups of insurgents that seek to project an image of unity of purpose often undermine their own combat effectiveness because of varying ambitions of future territorial as well as economic and/or political control. The Taliban in Afghanistan have had just that characteristic -- first against the Soviets and then against the U.S. international alliance. Family, clan and tribal ties separate the numerous groupings, to say nothing of the vigorous rivalry among insurgent leaders themselves. This is clearly true also in Syria.

Absent a unifying rebel command structure, the natural tendency of foreign assistance programs is to seek out those units that give the appearance of being friendly to the interests of the donor. Obviously this method has a great many shortcomings in general and in the case of Syria it’s often impossible to discriminate to any degree of accuracy. The jihadist leadership of Jabhat al-Nusra in northwest Syria has charged the Qatar-backed Farouk Brigade of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with “immoral” behavior and ejected them from the city of Raqqa. Meanwhile al-Nusra fighters have been charged by FSA commanders with imposing strict Sharia law, including summary beheadings.

Now, as in past conflicts, American special operations strategists have been duped into viewing certain indigenous fighters as “worthy” of U.S. or Allied aid and assistance only to find the opposite to be true. It’s not only a difficult task in the initial phases of insurgent operations, but it remains a continuing problem as the relationship alters over time. As local leadership changes as a result of combat losses or simply political shifts, foreign paramilitary officers must “go with the flow” or they are soon out of business.

How then can external aid in the form of military training and materiel be effective in an environment in which partisans of the different rebel groups view the other rebels as having interests inimical to their own? This is the operational situation in Syria at this time. It is not a new circumstance. It is not unlike the conflicts among the Burmese tribal armies in their wars for independence from central government controls, or the Montagnard deep hatred of lowland Vietnamese during the past war. Similar situations have occurred in numerous places around the world.

The various covert paramilitary (PM) programs of allied nations find themselves divided in their support of the separate fighting groups. Unless clear lines of responsibility are agreed upon -- territorially and politically -- the result is competition between and among the covert assistance groups that comes to mirror the same rivalries existing among their respective “clients.”

From the standpoint of the individual PM team in the field, it is an essential objective to build consistently effective coordination with their partnered indigenous fighting groups. The problem in Syria is that there are special operations personnel of considerable number operating in the field. U.S., British, French and Turkish units do not necessarily coordinate, and if they do it’s oft times inconsistent. In addition to these NATO partners there have been reports of operations of special forces from various Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Qatar. Regular Kurdish army units can be found working with their ethnic cousins in the now autonomous Kurdish region of northeast Syria. The complications are numerous.

The rebel group with the closest connection to al Qaeda is the al-Nusra Front. Reports have indicated that contrary to what might be thought this latter strongly Islamist group receives a great deal of support from the Turks. The Turkish Premier Erdogan is said to have had a long working relationship with its leadership and as a result al-Nusra is particularly strong in the region north of Aleppo in the northwest corner of Syria along the Turkish border. Al Qaeda itself is represented through its Syria-based affiliate, Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham. From an operational standpoint, the fighting capabilities of the al Qaeda-linked combat units are far superior in weaponry and tactics to the rebel units reflecting more moderate stances. An active program by the Western special operations teams is aimed at bridging this disparity. In fact, French intelligence was said to be in close liaison with the aforementioned Farouk Brigade that is very much a rival of al Nusra.

As can be imagined, Western special operations and intelligence personnel with regional and linguistic capability are in short supply. Thus the NATO-related covert operations teams tend to rely on local intermediaries. This of course presents both a tactical and security challenge. Many former field grade officers in the government ranks now defected to the rebels have language familiarity in French or English. Teen-age high school students, however, often provide greater breadth of language knowledge even though lacking in military skills. The skill level in all fields associated with the non-commisioned cadre is the weakest aspect of the rebel groups politically characterized as moderate. It is with this echelon that foreign advisors find the greatest need for training.

The tendency of civilian strategists and politicians is to refer to arming and training of rebel forces as if it were the key alternative to the civil conflict and a combat device of uncomplicated character. The reality is that involving capable and experienced special operations personnel in the middle of a generalized insurgency is a very intricate and dangerous mission as well as extremely time consuming. It is very easy for politicians and academics to call for greater utilization of such force-multiplying cadre. It’s quite another matter to expect these highly sophisticated forces to operate as if they are just another long-range weapon system. They are special -- and that’s why they are called that. It is also why they should not be placed in situations where support for their activities is limited at best, while expectations for their success are set so high.

Photo: UPI

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.