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Does increasing division of rebel groups benefit the Assad regime?

October 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Does open fighting between secular and Islamist factions of the Syrian opposition help the Assad regime? Ray Suarez talks to Greg Miller of The Washington Post and Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy about tensions among rebel groups and who is benefiting from arms and training supplied by the U.S.
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on the fractures among secular and Islamist opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and how much military support the U.S. is actually giving to the opposition, I’m joined by Greg Miller, a reporter for The Washington Post, and Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute.

Andrew, the rivalries and resentments between secular and Islamist fighters have long been well-known in this two-and-a-half year war, but is the blossoming of that resentment into open warfare something new?

ANDREW TABLER, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: It is.

There have been skirmishes in the past, but the activities around Azaz and the growing tensions between the extremists and those in the mainline opposition have been exacerbated by a few things, frustrations following the chemical weapons use by the regime in August, but also real frustration with the opposition coalition, particularly the political operatives who exist abroad. And those are the mainline units which are inside the country actually fighting the Assad regime. 

RAY SUAREZ: If they’re fighting each other, does that benefit the Assad regime?

ANDREW TABLER: It certainly does. It divides their ranks, but it makes little bit clearer to see who’s on the sort of further right end of the sort of spectrum of groups within Syria and who really is more moderate and towards the left. And I expect this is going to go on for some time.

RAY SUAREZ: Isn’t this really in some ways just a presaging of an eventual war in Syria, because these groups have very different visions about the future of the country, don’t they?

ANDREW TABLER: Particularly the announcement on the 24th of last month was concerning the establishment of and the end goal of an Islamic state within Syria, which is not the end goal of the Syrian opposition coalition, which is the main coalition that the United States backs.

RAY SUAREZ: Greg Miller, we saw Senator John Kerry a few moments ago defending the opposition, endorsing the idea of helping them. What kind of aid is the United States currently giving to forces in Syria, and does it amount to much?

GREG MILLER, The Washington Post: It doesn’t amount to a whole lot.

It has increased over the last couple of months. We know that the White House approved expanded aid to the moderate opposition forces some time ago. But it took months for that to start to trickle into Syria. So the CIA is now providing light weapons to moderate groups and training at bases in Jordan, but on such a small, small scale that even officials who are involved in this program think it borders on inconsequential.

RAY SUAREZ: So are they trying to ramp it up to something more consequential?

GREG MILLER: Well, the developments over the past month or two have sent out sort of alarms. And so there’s now been an effort by the CIA to ramp up support to the moderate groups because they had been losing so much momentum in the fight and ground to the harder-line Islamists.

So the agency has sent additional paramilitary teams in to try to speed up this training that they’re engaged in, in Jordan. But, again, it will only lead to perhaps a couple hundred trained fighters per month emerging from these camps.

And they’re flowing into a fight that is so much bigger, that those numbers are just not going to amount to much.

RAY SUAREZ: Because the future is so hard to contemplate, are there actually American official interests in a continued stalemate, that maybe Assad should lose, but not right away?

GREG MILLER: Well, I think that is part of what has defined the CIA’s mission, is that the administration is seeking a political settlement eventually, which sort of hinges on an eventual stalemate among these warring factions, instead of a clear and powerful victor in the end.

And so part of this is the agency being given the resources and authorities to bolster these moderate groups enough that they can hang on and not lose, but stopping short of giving them what they would need — well short of what they would need to win.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew, we saw the prepared videos that the rebel forces make of themselves in the field. Who are these guys? Are they Syrians or are they coming in from other countries?

ANDREW TABLER: It depends.

Most of the units fighting inside of Syria are Syrians, but, increasingly, over time, as the moderate groups haven’t really been sufficiently supported by the United States and other countries, those more radical groups and foreign fighters from the Arab Gulf, from Russia, Chechens, even Westerners have streamed to Syria.

It’s very easy to get to Syria. It’s unlike Afghanistan, which is very hard to reach. So they’re coming into Syria and picking up weapons to fight the Assad regime and fighting alongside of Syrian forces. So they don’t — they don’t necessarily join the Syrian forces, but they — but they fight alongside them. And, particularly, the one biggest group is the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it important, Greg, who they are, where they’re coming from? Does it create an X-factor in this war that it’s not just Syrians fighting it anymore?

GREG MILLER: Well, obviously, it’s very important the Syrians.

I mean, and even these Islamist groups are going to great lengths to try to brand themselves as Syrian, even as many of their fighters and much of their capability stems from their ability to import fighters with deep experience from Iraq and elsewhere. But it also matters to the United States and to this administration, which for whom a worst-case scenario, I think, is a chaotic state in the end in which you have an attraction for jihadists from other countries and a place where it’s hard for the United States or anybody else to suppress that threat.

RAY SUAREZ: As you have mentioned, Syria is a porous place, but it also borders a large number of countries. When you look at Syria, are — is the state of the war in some ways dependent on which neighboring country they’re near when they’re fighting, whether it’s getting supplies in or who the combatants are?

GREG MILLER: Of course.

You have — and the United States has close relationships with countries that are — regard this as critical to their futures, beyond what the future holds for Syria. So, Turkey and Jordan are working closely with the United States and the CIA on these programs just to try to support these moderate groups.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Andrew, the Turkish Parliament has decided to extend its self-granted ability to intervene in Syria. Is that a significant development?

ANDREW TABLER: It’s really hard to say.

On the one hand, yes, it would seem to give legal authority to the Turkish armed forces to intervene as they would see fit. But the problem really is, part of what effort? There really isn’t any kind of organized effort coming from the United States targeting the Assad regime in order to fulfill its goal to get Assad to step aside.

And I think, as long as that happens, Turkey and other neighboring countries will be very reticent to get involved militarily.

RAY SUAREZ: But a NATO force on the ground in Syria changes the calculus, doesn’t it?

ANDREW TABLER: I think it does. If there was an incident that would cause the Turks to completely intervene, that would be one thing. But I think, short of a massive plan to get Assad to step aside, I think that that would be less and less likely.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Tabler, Greg Miller, gentlemen, thank you both.

GREG MILLER: Thank you.