Michael D. Purzycki is a researcher, analyst, writer and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. He is a former communications and media analyst for the United States Marine Corps. He writes regularly for Charged Affairs (the journal of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy) and Braver Angels, and has also been published in Merion West, Washington Monthly, the Truman National Security Project, and France 24. He can be found on Twitter at @MDPurzycki and on Medium at https://medium.com/@mdpurzycki. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Alternative History: An Assessment of the Long-Term Impact of U.S. Strikes on Syria in 2013 on the Viability of the Free Syrian Army
Date Originally Written: June 9, 2020.
Date Originally Published: July 29, 2020.
Author and / or Article Point of View: This article presumes that the United States launched air and missile strikes on Syria in August 2013, in response to the use of chemical weapons against civilians by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. It is written from the perspective of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) for an audience of U.S. national security policymakers.
Summary: One year after U.S. air and missile strikes in Syria, a stalemate exists between the Assad regime and rebel groups. While Assad is far from defeated, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) held its own, thanks to U.S. assistance, and positions itself as a viable political alternative to both Assad and the Islamic State (IS). This stance is tenuous, however, and is threatened by both continued bombardment by regime forces and the international community’s focus on defeating IS.
Text: On August 21, 2013, the Syrian military fired rockets containing sarin gas at civilian areas in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, as well as conventionally armed rockets at Western Ghouta. Estimates of the resulting death toll range from 281 (estimated by French intelligence) to 1,729 (alleged by the FSA). A preliminary U.S. Intelligence Community estimate, released nine days after the attacks, “determined that 1,429 people were killed in the chemical weapons attack, including at least 426 children.”
After receiving the IC’s estimate, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered air and missile strikes against Assad regime command and control centers, and bases from which helicopters are deployed. While the combined strikes did not curtail the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons, they impeded communication between units armed with chemical weapons and their commanders, and reduced the use of barrel bombs dropped from regime helicopters. Assad concluded that the benefits of further use of chemical weapons did not outweigh the costs of possible further U.S. or French strikes.
Instead of using chemical weapons, Assad continued his use of conventional weapons against his opponents, including civilians. For example, in November and December 2013, as government forces attempted to break a stalemate with rebels in Aleppo, government air strikes killed up to 425 civilians, of whom 204 were killed in a four-day period. While the FSA has fought capably on the ground against the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), its fighters and the civilians they protect remain vulnerable to air strikes.
In January 2014, President Obama expanded Timber Sycamore, the supply of weapons and training to Syrian rebels by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In addition to providing greater numbers of rifles, machine guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and anti-tank missiles, the CIA provided rebels with a limited number of man-portable air defense systems. While the rebels have repeatedly asked for more of these antiaircraft systems, the U.S. has declined to provide them, due to fears of them ending up in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria) or other extremists. Thus, while the FSA has shot down several regime warplanes, fighter aircraft have largely continued to operate unimpeded over rebel-held territory.
The U.S. and France have launched strikes against SAA command and control locations on three additional occasions in the last year. While these strikes have not significantly curbed the regime’s use of conventional weapons, they have slowed the pace at which regime forces can plan and carry out their attacks. This slowing pace has enabled the FSA to better prepare for upcoming attacks, and thus reduce the number of deaths both among their ranks and among nearby civilians.
While fighting between the regime and the FSA has continued, IS has emerged over the past year as the primary extremist organization opposing Assad. In addition to its capture of large swaths of Iraq, including the city of Mosul in June 2014, it controls portions of northern, central and eastern Syria. While IS’ former partner Jabhat al-Nusra remains focused on fighting the Assad regime, IS’ goal is the perpetuation of an Islamist proto-state, where it can govern in accordance with its extremely strict, puritanical interpretation of Islam.
The strength of IS has benefited Assad; he has cited IS’s extreme brutality as evidence that he must remain in power and crush his opponents, making no distinction between IS, the FSA, or any other force opposing the regime. The international community’s focus on defeating IS in Iraq gives Assad more opportunities to target his non-IS opponents. While it is in the U.S. interest to play a leading role in dislodging IS from its strongholds in Iraq, it risks losing influence over the Syrian opposition if it does not continue its actions in Syria. The FSA may look to other actors, such as Saudi Arabia, to help it fight Assad if it feels it is being ignored by the U.S.
U.S. support, including air and missile strikes, has helped the FSA endure in the face of regime attacks. However, Syria’s non-extremist opposition faces considerable challenges. While IS’ extreme governance model of what a post-Assad Syria might look like is imposing, and is attracting thousands of foreign fighters, the FSA’s potential democratic and pluralist model has not inspired to the same extent. The vulnerability of the FSA and the areas it holds to regime air strikes is a significant weakness. If the U.S. insists that Assad must not be allowed to remain in power, he is likely to focus his attacks on the FSA, potentially overwhelming it, while leaving the U.S.-led coalition to fight IS.
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