Well, they really had already — but now the center cannot hold, either. The leader of the Free Syrian Army, the Western-backed military coalition in the country, has fled Syria, taking refuge in Qatar’s capital. General Salim Idriss, a former member of the Syrian military himself, was the focus of efforts in the West to arm, train, and organize a moderate fighting force that could defeat Bashar Assad and marginalize extreme, Islamist elements. Now he can try to do so from Doha. The Washington Post editorial page’s favorite rebel was elected head of the FSA in December 2012 (at a conference in Turkey), and since then, Islamist and al-Qaeda groups have been in ascendance — peeling groups off from the more moderate coalitions to join more explicitly Islamist militias, and winning territory both from Assad and, more successfully, from the FSA and other moderate rebel groups.
One way to read this, as Josh Rogin reports for the Daily Beast, is that the U.S. didn’t adequately support its man (and men) — the Obama administration took a long time to decide to grant non-lethal aid and then small arms to the rebels, and then they never really arrived. (The CIA was, however, training 200 or so FSA troops per month in Jordan.) But it was already evident back in 2012 that the most effective fighting forces in Syria were Islamist groups, especially those with incipient al-Qaeda links. Idriss himself never had any clear military power at all, though parts of the multifarious FSA did. The Gulf monarchies, who presumably are not terribly excited about arming al-Qaeda groups, were pouring weapons and cash into Syria, and they didn’t manage to build a useful, moderate fighting force and instead seem to have strengthened the Islamists. So it’s not clear what the U.S. ever could have done to prevent the eventual marginalization of Idriss and the moderates we liked meeting with in Turkey and Geneva, without a truly massive effort to shape the outcome in Syria, which even the most hawkish advocates never proposed.
In any case, extreme Islamists now so dominate rebel-held Syria, especially the north — there, an Islamist group called Ahrar al-Sham (part of a larger Islamist coalition) just seized a warehouse of supplies and weapons belonging to the Syrian Military Council, an umbrella body the U.S. used to distribute its aid — that the U.S. has suspended aid to rebels in the north, and possibly the entire country.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration maintains that it supports and will attend the Geneva peace talks in January, where they’ll join the regime, some representatives of the rebels — maybe not the FSA, and more likely some Islamists — Russia, and maybe Iran, to talk over a political settlement. We’ll see how that goes.
And it’s snowing in the refugee camps in northeastern Lebanon:
UPDATE: White House officials and the Syrian Military Council now claim (contra earlier claims from the administration) that Idriss did not in fact flee a base in Syria attacked by Islamists, but was in Turkey when his headquarters were overrun, and then he went to Qatar. He’s now, according to the SMC, returned to Turkey.