As rebels attempt to regroup in advance of a new strategy to overpower Assad, and Western powers try to start from scratch with a new rebel formation that is presumably devoid of Salafi Jihadists, the U.S. is calling on third party, non-state actors to arm the rebels in order to avoid becoming embroiled in a geo-politically sensitive conflict just ahead of presidential elections. As attentions turn to the chaos breaking out across the Middle East and North Africa (and even further afield), what chance do the rebels have of pushing Assad to his limits? Jen Alic of Oilprice.com interviewed Michael Bagley, President of the Jellyfish Operations, a private intelligence company.
Jen Alic: Let's just start out with the biggest question on everyone's mind. Can the rebels defeat Assad?
Michael Bagley: Certainly, they can, but to fully answer this question we have to look backwards and forwards. It was a grave mistake for the U.S. and its Arab allies to purposefully facilitate an influx of foreign fighters, namely Salafi jihadists, into Syria through the Turkish border to boost the ranks of the Syrian rebels. Now the rebels are in a tough position, and clearly everyone is having second thoughts about this disastrous strategy, not least the true rebels themselves. This temporary solution to the rebels' inadequate manpower is now a not-so-temporary setback. This is the first problem that must be resolved.
Alic: The next obvious question, then, is how does one get rid of extremist forces it has welcomed into its ranks?
Bagley: The U.S. has a tendency to temporarily befriend enemy jihadists, let them serve their purposes and then turn against them, creating even more vehement enemies in the process. This is what went horribly wrong in Libya last week. The rebels have already lost control of their Salafi jihadist elements, and along with that, the "hearts and minds" of the citizens who would otherwise have supported them wholeheartedly. Now that support is based on fear as much as it is on love-fear of the extremists. There has already been one rather high-profile assassination of a key jihadist commander, but this is not a realistic solution to the problem. The only way the rebels will defeat the jihadists is to defeat Assad on their own terms.
Alic: On Sunday, Syria's Foreign Ministry, in a letter to the U.N. Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, accused Turkey of allowing al-Qaeda fighters to cross into Syria. According to Syria, their numbers are in the thousands. How would you respond to this?
Bagley: Yes, the strategy is most unfortunate also because it gives Assad ammunition in the U.N. Security Council. Assad has always accused the rebels of being "terrorists", even when the conflict first flared up and before "foreign fighters" were allowed to hijack the genuine rebel movement. Now Assad is being legitimised in a way that no one wants to see.
Assad is attempting, successfully, to foment worsening relations among the various sects in Syria to ensure there can be no united rebel force strong enough to affect his defeat. Not only are we dealing with "foreign fighters", but criminal interests are stepping in to take advantage of the situation, and the population is being divided along sectarian lines, which will only be further exacerbated by the developments that began in Libya last week and quickly spread across the region.
Alic: What do you make of reports of the formation of a new rebel group call the Syrian National Army, apparently supported by Turkey, France and the U.S?
Bagley: This is more or less the revolution "Take II" and hopefully lighter on the jihadist element. It's the Western powers trying to right a wrong, to undo the ill-conceived strategy that they started out with. What is disturbing is that this signals that the Free Syrian Army has failed and that there is a need to start over, which will result in a serious loss of momentum, and possibly another conflict front that buys into Assad's overall plan to weaken the rebels. The "new" rebel group is not in itself a bad development and its commander, defected Major General Muhammad al-Haj Ali purportedly is against international intervention in the form of the establishment of a no-fly zone, and he is correct in this at this point because Assad has blurred the lines too much to make a no-fly zone effective.
Alic: Why will this new group be more effective?
Bagley: It may not be. I think what is most important to understand, is that groups like the Free Syrian Army and this new Syrian National Army are by no means the backbone of the revolution. These groups largely are represented by exiled opposition leaders or defected military figures, who are not cohesive. Most of them are in Turkey and Jordan. On the ground, though, there are smaller rebel groups who have managed to establish their own organisational structures and who have been successful in replacing the regime, but not on a national level, only in small areas that are easier to control. It is this momentum upon which we need to build, and it is these smaller groups that the new Syrian National Army should focus on organising into a national undertaking. If, from exile, the Syrian National Army can coordinate the efforts of these smaller groups instead of attempting to usurp them, they will be successful.
Alic: Assuming the rebels can re-take the revolution, so to speak, from the jihadist elements and overcome their own disunity, what shifts in strategy do they need to adopt in order to gain momentum?