Civil Surge

Can Syrian moderates prove they'd do a better job of governing liberated areas than the Islamist opposition?

It is all too easy to tick off the things the United States and other Western actors might once have been able to do, but no longer can, to help the people of Syria in their nightmarish struggle against the regime in Damascus. They won't establish a no-fly zone, because there has never been any will to do so. They won't seriously arm moderate rebel brigades, because those moderates are swiftly losing out to extremists who would be almost certain to seize advanced weapons. They will, however, speak about -- and perhaps even hold -- a conference to discuss a political transition. But it won't work, both because President Bashar al-Assad won't leave power and because the extremists won't accept a ceasefire.

One thing the West can do, however, is to help Syrians try to govern the liberated cities of the north, now threatened by the regime, by the foreign jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and by the chaos that comes with the collapse of municipal government. The one place where you really can find moderates is in civil society, which is full of dedicated young activists and trained professionals (as well as parasites, grifters and incompetents, of course). And the best way, or at least the most likely way, to tip the balance between moderates and extremists is to show Syrians that the former can provide better governance than the latter.

This is a threat which foreign jihadists recognize. When an ISIS brigade took control of the city of Raqqa earlier this year, they arrested as many as 3,000 local activists and confiscated their computers and other equipment, much of it provided by the United States. This so incensed local people that even ISIS got the message: the jihadists now tolerate (though they do not help) the local council which provides basic municipal services in the city. And the jihadists are themselves competing to provide basic services: According to a recent account, Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist fighitng group with a strong presence in Raqqa, picks up the garbage, supplies water and electricity, bakes bread and distributes food. Local governance, in short, has become a prime site for the battle for Syrian hearts and minds.

The Obama administration now spends $250 million on non-lethal aid to Syrian groups, much of it to train and equip local councils and civil society activists like those in Raqqa. In some ways, the effort seems sadly marginal, since civilians cannot stand up either to regime shelling or to ISIS's terror tactics. But the stark fact is that Syria is locked in a bloody stalemate which could last for years, and the millions of Syrians now left to govern themselves must learn to do so, and get the help they need to do so.

Virtually every liberated Syrian city now has a local council providing rudimentary services, and myriad private groups which receive and distribute food and medicine, document regime atrocities, and sometimes operate radio or even television stations. Part of the Obama administration effort, conducted by the State Department's Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), is to coordinate that effort so that goods and services flow through the local councils and thus enhance the legitimacy of local government. The CSO and other agencies provide grants of up to several hundred thousand dollars for councils in big cities like Aleppo so that they can open schools or health clinics or build basic infrastructure, as well as lesser sums in small towns.

It is, by necessity, a bottom-up effort. Nagham Ghadri, an activist who runs an organization called Bahr (The Sea) told me that it's all too clear that the Syrian National Coalition, the official political representative of the revolution, is not about to form a government inside Syria. Rather than wait, she's hoping to reform local councils by holding democratic elections. She plans to start in Darkoush, a city in the northwest. Ghadri will send activists from village explaining such unfamiliar ideas as "election" and "citizen." She concedes, however, that she will instruct her canvassers not to use the word "democracy," which the medieval lunatics of ISIS view as Western devilry.

Indeed, very few of the many activists I spoke to during a week in southern Turkey put much stock in the Syrian National Coalition, though most also blame international donors for starving it of funds. I got a powerful dose of this acrimonious relationship at a conference for lawyers, judges and police officials held in the provincial capital of Gazientep. Laser al Zakri, a local representative of the council, asked for the floor and proceeded to insult everyone in the room.

"Our only true friend," he declared, "is Turkey. The others are just playing with us. Their tools are the civil society organizations in Syria, which are just trying to get more money from foreign donors." It turned out that al Zakri was miffed that he hadn't been invited. One of the judges shot back, "The Syrian National Coalition does not represent the Syrian people; it does not represent the revolution. And we don't need to get a security agreement from Turkey to open up a falafel shop."

It took an hour and a half for the fury to abate.

The conference, convened by the Syrian Emergency Task Force, helped clarify what outsiders can and cannot do. Several of the lawyers and judges I spoke to had been sidelined by the sharia courts established not just by ISIS but by other Islamist rebel groups. They proved to be less interested in proposals to re-establish judicial systems in their cities than in advice on documenting crimes by the regime and getting the attention (not very likely, they were advised) of the International Criminal Court.

The police, however, are a different matter. The major northern cities all have large contingents of police officers and ranking officials. Aleppo has 1,200 policeman, according to Steven Heydemann, a scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace who attended the conference. Heydemann believes that the police can serve as "the leading edge of the effort to consolidate some kind of moderate presence" in liberated areas. Indeed, one of the chief eminences of the event was former Brig. Gen. Imad Dohra, who had served as chief of police of the Alawite enclave of Latakia before defecting in 2012. Dohra was now working to cultivate local police forces in his home province of Idlib, and to tie them into a single administrative unit.

The Obama administration is already channeling operational funds through the Aleppo provincial council to the city's Free Police, and supplying them directly with communications equipment. But Heydemann suggests a much more ambitious effort involving vehicles (for which the administration has yet to authorize funds) and weapons (which at the moment are not at all in the cards). The most essential service local government can supply, after all, is security, which in liberated Syria now depends almost entirely on local military commanders. Creating an effective police force, Heydemann argues, would not only provide a space of security in terrifyingly insecure cities but would help legitimize local government and might even create opportunities for lawyers and judges to start doing the work they trained for.

Every Syrian you speak to has a conspiracy theory to explain why the United States hasn't come to their side: Syria has no oil. Syria is Israel's enemy. Washington has cut a deal with Moscow. And so on. The reality is that it's probably too late to win any hearts and minds among the Syrian people, anyway; in any case, the Obama administration has no intention of intervening decisively, or even dramatically, on the side of the rebels. But it can intervene more decisively on the side of the activists who are struggling desperately to sustain a decent and democratic vision of their wrecked country. It's not enough; but for now, it will have to do.


Terms of Engagement

'Everyone Is Scared of ISIS.'

Can anyone stop the radicalization of Syrian rebels?

I've spent much of the last week in Antakya, an ancient city, known to Byzantine Christians as Antioch, which now serves as a bivouac for Syrian rebel fighters and a jumping-off point for journalists and humanitarian actors working in Syria, which lies 20 miles to the west. One subject preoccupies everyone in the Turkish town: not the brutality of the regime in Damascus, but the nihilistic violence of the foreign jihadi group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

Firas Tammim, a native of the Syrian city of Latakia who now brings medical supplies and other goods to the region, said to me, "I don't want to say Assad is better, but at least he didn't arrest or kill people because they were smoking." Tammim showed me a picture on his phone of a crowd of villagers, including children, witnessing an ISIS beheading of an alleged infidel. "Think what this does to these children," he said. Over time, Tammim said, Syrians are becoming inured to what they once would have found unspeakable.

ISIS appears to have up to 8,000 soldiers in Syria, a tiny number compared with the 100,000 or so rebel fighters. But the group's medieval ideology, as well as its pathological obsession with enforcing Islamist rectitude in the towns and cities its soldiers have infiltrated, has made it a source of terror. One evening I was sitting at an outdoor cafe where a grizzled man was steadily smoking a hookah and shooting jets of tobacco smoke through his nostrils. He called himself Abu Abdul, and he was a fighter with a brigade affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the "moderate" forces backed by the West. We talked about the jihadists. Then he said something else. "He asks that you not mention the name of his brigade," my interpreter said. "Everyone is scared of ISIS."

President Bashar al-Assad has received two enormous gifts in recent months. The first is the Russian-brokered deal to remove Syria's chemical weapons, which distracted attention from his relentless campaign to kill and terrorize his enemies and also compelled Western governments to work with him as the country's legitimate ruler. The second is ISIS, which has also deflected attention away from the war between the regime and the rebels and has vindicated as nothing else could Assad's persistent claim that he is confronting, not political opponents, but "terrorists," as his foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, recently claimed at the United Nations.

For this reason, it has become a fixed conviction in Antakya that ISIS functions as a secret arm of the regime. This sounds like an all-too-understandable conspiracy theory, yet even Western diplomats I've spoken to consider it plausible, if scarcely proved. In the summer of 2012, Assad released from prison a number of jihadists who had fought with al Qaeda in Iraq and who are thought to have helped formed ISIS. Reporters, activists, and fighters also note that while regime artillery has flattened the FSA's headquarters in Aleppo, the ISIS camp next door was left untouched until the jihadi group left; the same is true in the fiercely contested eastern city of Raqqa. ISIS, for its part, has done very little to liberate regime-held areas, but has seized control of both Raqqa and the border town of Azaz from FSA forces.

Maybe it is just a conspiracy theory. Aaron Zelin, a Syria analyst who closely follows the dynamic among rebel groups, dismisses the idea as "partly wish-fulfillment and partly delusion." But there's no mistaking the hydraulic effect of ISIS's brand of uncompromising Islam. I spoke to a group of wounded fighters recovering in a clinic in the Turkish town of Reyhanli, a few miles from the border with Syria. One of them, who called himself Abu Abbas, had gone to al-Baath University in Homs with my interpreter, Rifaie Tammas. He had been pursuing a master's degree in English literature. He shocked Rifaie by defending ISIS and claiming that the group is fighting the moderates because they are American stooges. The only answer for Syria, said Abu Abbas, is the rule of sharia.

The growing Islamization of the rebellion has something to do with ISIS, though a good deal more to do with the rebels' growing sense of embitterment at their abandonment by the West and by exile groups who squabble among themselves in the comfort of Turkish or Egyptian hotels. The Islamists -- not just ISIS -- say, "We have no one to turn to but God," and young men like Abu Abbas have little reason to think otherwise.

The moderate rebels have become increasingly chimerical. On Sept. 24, 13 fighting groups -- including the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, Salafi brigades, and some more mainline elements -- issued a joint declaration in which they pledged to operate within an "Islamic framework" based on "the rule of sharia and making it the sole source of legislation." At the same time, the groups cut all ties with the Syrian National Council (SNC), the exile group that has received Western support. The pledge looked less like a gesture of solidarity than of despair.

It could have been otherwise. U.S. President Barack Obama could have bolstered moderate forces if he had supplied the rebels with weapons more than a year ago, as he was urged to do by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others. By refusing to do so, he discredited the SNC, alienated fighting units, and created a vacuum that ISIS has increasingly filled. Now, thanks in no small part to that failure, Obama has far stronger grounds to withhold U.S. military assistance than he had before. The president is not going to put much stock in a rebellion that puts so little stock in Western values.

What's more, the fear that advanced weapons might fall into the hands of extremists, arguably overblown 18 months ago, is now impossible to discount. The fighters and activists I spoke to insist that the only way they can take on ISIS, as well as the regime, is with a steady supply of weapons and ammunition. They're right, but they won't win that argument in Washington. And the consequences of a hypothetical military victory look more and more dangerous. Imad Dahro, a former general in the national police who defected last year, assured me, as many people did, that the regime would collapse in the face of a sustained American missile strike. "Then what?" I asked. Wouldn't the myriad rebel groups in the north then turn on each other? He reflected for a moment, and said, "Maybe."

The rise of ISIS, in short, has made the situation much worse for the rebels, much worse for the West, and much better for the regime. I heard any number of Syrians calling for nonradical brigades, with a core of Free Syrian Army groups, to join forces against ISIS. Only then, the argument runs, can they make a concerted effort to wage the war against the real enemy -- the regime. What is certainly true is that the rebels will not get major help from the West unless and until they reverse the process of Islamization, though select brigades will continue to receive arms and ammunition from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others.

But radicalization is likely to increase, not diminish. Foreign extremists will keep streaming into Syria (a recent Der Spiegel article estimated the jihadi population of Atmeh, a Syrian town just across the border from Reyhanli, at 1,000). Assad will continue to exploit the focus on chemical weapons to commit atrocities against Syrian civilians. The rebels will keep absorbing and inflicting losses. And the endless torrent of refugees will further destabilize Lebanon and Jordan.

Obama has never tried to make the argument that America's national interests lie in preventing such a debacle, through military as well as diplomatic means. And now, perhaps, it's too late.