In the first week of September 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared before congressional hearings in hopes of drumming up support for the Obama administration’s plan to retaliate militarily for the Syrian government’s deadly use of chemical weapons outside Damascus.
The secretary’s pitch included some rare good news about the conflict, which by then was in its third bloody year.
“The opposition is getting stronger by the day,” Kerry assured members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He painted a picture of model partners for the United States, saying the rebel movement had “increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership.” It was, he said, adhering to a democratic process and a constitution that protected minorities.
At another hearing that week, Kerry responded to a lawmaker’s skepticism about the existence of moderate rebels by saying that only a fraction of the fighters were “al-Qaida and the bad guys.” Maybe 15 to 25 percent, he estimated.
“There is a real moderate opposition that exists,” Kerry said.
If the skeptical lawmaker was reassured, professional Syria watchers were not. Many were aghast at what sounded to them like either dangerous naivete or an outright lie, given that the U.S. government’s own internal assessments had found from very early in the conflict that al-Qaida-style extremists were playing an outsize role in the rebel fight.
Additionally, Islamist rebels were suspected of kidnapping several Western journalists and aid workers. One of those victims, Steven Sotloff, a freelance journalist from Miami who would later be beheaded by the Islamic State, had disappeared in Syria only a month before Kerry testified.
By all accounts — internal memos, intelligence briefings, dispatches from the ground — conventional wisdom was that the extremists were recruiting or routing mainstream fighters, and that the loosely affiliated moderate factions known collectively as the Free Syrian Army were no match for the more disciplined and better-armed jihadists.
Extensive interviews with Syria policymakers from the Obama administration, some of whom spoke on the record and others who requested anonymity so as to freely describe the administration’s behind-the-scenes debates, reveal that the Obama administration was warned early on that al-Qaida-linked fighters were gaining prominence within the anti-Assad struggle.
Senior officials chose to look the other way, however, and flog a misleading narrative of a viable moderate force. Today, the same extremists have seized wide swaths of Syria and Iraq, uprooting millions of people, threatening the stability of U.S. regional allies, and sucking the United States into another open-ended conflict in the Middle East.
The Syrian rebellion began in March 2011 as part of a wave of mostly peaceful Arab protests against autocratic regimes that had quickly toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. Within months, however, it was clear that State Department pleas for Syrian opposition activists to remain nonviolent weren’t working in the face of the regime’s increasingly brutal crackdown on demonstrators.
It didn’t take long for militant Islamists to join the fight, justifying their participation with literalist interpretations of religious scripture about fighting oppressors. That noble-sounding rally for jihad had a magnetlike draw for disaffected young men and women from across the Muslim world.
By that November, just eight months into the rebellion and only two months after President Barack Obama had called for Assad to step aside, a memo from senior policymakers to then-national security adviser Tom Donilon warned that “this thing was becoming jihadized,” as one former top official summarized it. The response?
“There was never any indication that the memo was read,” the former official said.
Two aides to Donilon, who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said he was unavailable for comment.
The rebel power shift was even sharper the next year. Extremist forces were increasingly active, and the outline of what would become the Islamic State was taking shape.
“By the second half of 2012, some of us were warning our superiors and the White House that jihadis were taking control of eastern Syria and would link up with jihadis in Iraq,” said Robert Ford, who at the time was U.S. ambassador to Syria, though he’d been forced to leave the country in late 2011. “In fact, the Syrian jihadis had come out of Iraq. So we knew already they had ties to them.”
The jihadist presence was well-established by the time Kerry told Congress that the moderates were on the upswing in the fall of 2013.
The Obama administration already had designated al-Qaida’s local affiliate, the Nusra Front, as a terrorist organization. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known today as simply the Islamic State, had staked a foothold with its battle skills and suicide bombers.
Within weeks of Kerry’s appearance before legislators, other fundamentalist groups that U.S. authorities were tracking would coalesce into an umbrella group, the Islamic Front, which included members whose ideology was virtually indistinguishable from al-Qaida’s doctrine.
To former officials who read the same assessments as Kerry — or, in some cases, who prepared such briefings — the congressional testimony sounded like wishful thinking at best.
That December, just three months after Kerry’s testimony, U.S.-backed rebels led by a defected Syrian officer, Gen. Salim Idriss, were forced to flee their northern headquarters when Islamist forces overwhelmed them and seized control of stockpiles of U.S.-provided equipment.
The Obama administration immediately froze millions of dollars in nonlethal aid. Idriss, whom the State Department had described as “a key component of the future of the Syrian opposition,” was forced out by his own military council. The remaining moderate forces never recovered from the blow.
“It’s probably accurate to say we underestimated how bad it would be,” Jeffrey Feltman, who was the assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs until July 2012, said of the administration’s response to the jihadist threat in Syria. “The concern was there all along.”
But it rarely was expressed publicly. When the importance of the jihadis became undeniable, Obama administration officials were irate.
That was the case on Aug. 5, 2013, when a pair of suicide bombers rammed an armored personnel carrier through the gate at Syria’s Menagh airbase near the northern city of Aleppo. The blast devastated the regime’s defenses and allowed rebels to capture a prize they’d been besieging for a year.
Basking in their hard-won victory, the fighters filmed themselves showing off the weapons they’d captured and praising the rebel cooperation behind the attack.
Back in Washington, however, there was no such jubilation.
“We were furious,” recalled Ford. “I called Oqaidi myself.”
Ford was referring to Col. Abdel-Jabbar al-Oqaidi, then-commander of the Aleppo branch of the Free Syrian Army. The problem was that the American-backed colonel had been filmed celebrating his men’s joint victory with al-Qaida-affiliated fighters, creating a public relations nightmare for the Obama administration, which was trying to show Congress and the American public that it was boosting moderates and isolating extremists on the battlefield.
Although al-Oqaidi’s men were among several Syrian factions besieging the base, the suicide bombers were foreign fighters and the shock troops came from a contingent of Russian-speaking jihadists from Chechnya and other parts of the Caucasus. Their leader, known as Omar Shishani, was part of the al-Qaida offshoot known at the time as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; today he’s believed to be the military commander for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State.
Even though administration officials had been worried for months about the metastasizing jihadist presence among the rebels, Ford said, the Menagh incident was the Obama administration’s wake-up call that the extremists had become the backbone of the anti-Assad forces, the go-to guys for when the less-trained, poorly equipped Free Syrian Army units couldn’t carry out attacks alone.
Frustrated by the turn of events and under pressure for an explanation, Ford called al-Oqaidi for what he called “a very unhappy phone conversation.”
“I said, ‘This is extremely unhelpful, extra unhelpful.’ And he said, ‘You gave us nothing to fight with,’” Ford recalled. “All I could say to him is: When you do stuff like that, you make it even harder. And he said, ‘Mr. Ambassador, we have a war to fight.’”
Ford, among the most vocal proponents of arming U.S.-vetted rebels, had watched as al-Oqaidi and other commanders he knew went from disavowing the sectarian rhetoric of the extremists in 2012 to joining the jihadists in battle by the next year.
The turning point, Ford said, was the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah’s decision in 2013 to send its Shiite Muslim fighters across the border to help out the weakened Assad regime. The predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels, even those who didn’t ascribe to the extremists’ belief that Shiites are apostates, began describing their cause in the same sectarian terms.
“On the battlefield, as the fight got tougher, it became impossible for the more moderate elements of the Free Syrian Army to have nothing to do with Nusra,” Ford said. “They’re fighting the same enemy. They’re in close quarters. Nusra is four blocks down that way; they knew them. People would go back and forth between the groups depending on money and ammo.”
As the year progressed, Ford said, the moderate forces and jihadists became “way too intermixed,” in both the north and south of Syria.
If there ever had been an opportunity to change Obama’s aversion to intervening in Syria, officials said, that moment had passed.
“The dominant element in the opposition is the most radical,” said Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria who’s now dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. “Any weapons we provide stand a good chance of winding up in their hands. And you know the mess we created for ourselves with the Stingers in Afghanistan — we’re still trying to get all those back.”
Whether or not the United States could have beaten back the extremists by acting sooner to support the moderates is impossible to know. What’s left is the hard truth Crocker summed up in a sentence:
“The people we like haven’t won.”