Bashar Al-Assad: We Know Who's in the Syrian Opposition, and It's Time to Arm Them

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee met this week to debate a bipartisan bill (S.960) that would authorize President Obama to provide "vetted elements of the Syrian opposition" with lethal aid and military training. While the bill passed the committee with a vote of 15-3, some concerns were raised about exactly who would be receiving weapons paid for by the American people. Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) voted against the bill and stated, "We need to ask: 'Who are we arming?'" Senator Menendez (D-N.J.) argued that the U.S. knows opposition elements it can support and pointed to the "strict vetting rules" included in the legislation. As this bill will most likely move to the Senate floor, it is imperative to understand how the Syrian opposition is organized and who would benefit from new lethal aid.

At present, the armed opposition cannot be easily grouped into different allegiances or ideologies. However, the recently formed Syrian Military Command (SMC) presents an opportunity to unify a moderate opposition with the strength to defeat Assad and overpower groups supported by extremists. If the SMC receives the American support proposed in S.960, moderate opposition groups will likely cede more of their authority to SMC commanders in exchange for supplies and financial aid. Additionally, radical groups like Al-Nusra will be marginalized when the moderate opposition becomes better supplied and better organized.

It is important to understand the difference between the SMC and the main political opposition group in Syria, the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (SOC). The United States and others recognize the SOC as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, but it is a group of politicians without an armed faction. The SMC was created by a group of rebel commanders in December 2012 with the purpose of becoming the defense ministry under a future SOC government. During the SMC’s creation, the commanders agreed on three goals to guide the new organization: to unite forces on the ground to prevent anarchy; to sideline external elements and reduce their influence over the fate of the Syrian people; and to prevent extremist elements from taking over centers of power in the country. The U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the U.A.E. have agreed to direct all military aid and assistance through the SMC, and the SMC vows that it will only disperse military assistance to approved rebel groups operating under their structure.

Defining the SMC’s structure is where most politicians get weary. Its leaders have no direct chain of command to forces operating on the ground and rely mostly on Free Syrian Army (FSA) regional commanders. In fact, the SMC itself is less of a fighting force and more of a military hierarchy to which rebel groups pledge allegiance. If the SMC is able to expand its authority and solidify a chain of command, a resilient and disciplined fighting force will emerge. This will only happen if the SMC can provide ground forces with money and supplies. Therefore, increased support from the international community is vital to building a unified opposition.

The significant opposition groups fighting on the front lines include the FSA, whose leaders are closely intertwined with the SMC, the Syrian Liberation Front (SLF), the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), and Al-Nusra. Members of the SLF are viewed as moderate Islamists and were primarily supported by Saudi Arabia until the Saudis agreed to funnel all support through the SMC. As SLF leadership is already closely aligned with the SMC, their relationship will only strengthen if the SMC is able to provide troops with additional resources. The SIF is a Salafist group with weak ties to the SMC. They differ from Al-Qaeda affiliated groups because they are considered Syrian nationalists and not supportive of an Islamic caliphate. Al-Nusra is the group closely aligned with Al-Qaeda and its extremist ideologies have led to confrontations with other rebel groups. For comparison, it is estimated that Al-Nusra has a fighting force one-eighth the size of FSA, one-seventh the size of SLF, and one-half the size of SIF.

Despite the size difference, Al-Nusra grows daily with defections from the FSA and the arrival of foreign fighters. Many Syrian rebels are joining the extremists because they are better funded and better equipped to fight the Assad military. As all sides of the opposition are battling a well-trained pro-Assad force aided by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, it makes sense that soldiers are joining the group that can provide them with a chance of success and survival.  

If the moderate opposition, currently the majority, is to have any chance of success, the international community must support the SMC with financial and military resources. A disciplined and organized opposition is the only way to defeat Assad while marginalizing the extremists and allowing for a stable transition to a post-Assad Syria. If S.960 is signed into law it will help create the military structure needed for Syria's moderates to turn the tide against Assad's forces and the radical Islamists. As Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) argued during the Foreign Relations Committee meeting, pro-Assad forces and radical extremists are well-armed, leaving only the moderate opposition with little support. The U.S. can and should play a productive role in building a stable and moderate Syria by supporting the SMC and passing S.960.