Ilham Amhed, president of the Syrian Democratic Council, on Monday met with U.S. congressional representatives and pleaded with President Donald Trump to stop Turkey’s “massacre” and “ethnic cleansing” of Syrian Kurds.
She reportedly warned that Turkey’s allies in Syria, the Free Syrian Army – regarded as a solid ally by the Obama administration – is, in reality, the “new ISIS” and is committing atrocities against civilians.
The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) is the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led military alliance that fought fiercely against the Islamic State.
The SDF is, in turn, linked to the Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) – which Turkey regards as an arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist insurgency that is classified as a terrorist organization by the United States and NATO.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a loosely-defined network of Syrian rebel groups assembled by former Syrian military officers in 2011. The FSA was directly supported by the Obama administration through its Syrian Support Group (SSG). FSA supreme commander Gen. Salim Idris met with former Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013 and requested equipment and training from President Barack Obama, promoting his organization as Obama’s best hope for taking down Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.
Obama initially signed a secret order authorizing covert support for the FSA through U.S. intelligence agencies. Congress approved the arming of Syrian rebels, including the FSA, in September 2014. U.S. support for the FSA reportedly included military training.
The Obama administration began cutting off cash support to FSA units in 2015 as criticism mounted that the program was not accomplishing much against either ISIS or the Assad regime and too many of the brigades supported by Obama’s program had not been vetted thoroughly enough. The FSA warned that losing U.S. support would mean al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front would become the most powerful force in the rebellion.
Western media in the Obama era hailed the FSA as the only force standing between Syrian civilians and a massacre at the hands of Assad’s forces. Obama’s backing emboldened supporters to liken them to the citizen-soldiers of the American Revolution, prompting complaints from other FSA supporters that the U.S. president was underselling the professional military leadership of the organization’s best units, possibly because Obama’s realignment of U.S. foreign policy toward Iran motivated him to drop his tepid support for anti-Assad groups that weren’t getting the job done against Iran’s ally in Damascus anyway.
Obama’s former special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition in Syria, Brett McGurk, told the New Yorker about the previous administration’s support for the FSA in an interview published on Saturday. McGurk said the Obama administration all but created the FSA:
In Syria, we are not working with a government, and in many ways we are working against that government. So we needed a ground force if we wanted to cleave back the caliphate and these territories. And we invested significant amounts of time, significant American resources, to build a force that was known as the Free Syrian Army, which was the umbrella of the opposition forces fighting Assad.
And we spent an awful amount of time on that effort, and it proved to be extremely difficult, because many of those forces were “marbled” with extremist actors that we could not work with, or that our Special Forces could not work with in a manner that would guarantee their safety. But we continued that effort for some time, and working with Turkey as well.
The FSA was almost synonymous with the ideal of the “moderate Syrian rebels” that could be safely backed by America; friendly media reports about Obama’s Syria policy tended to use photos of FSA units when they wanted to show armed groups fighting Assad and ISIS with U.S. support. Think tanks promoted the FSA as the best “check on radicalization” and “moderate authority” in Syria, criticizing Obama for not supporting it sooner and more forcefully to give it a real shot at knocking Assad out of power.
But now the Free Syrian Army is marching with Turkey against the Kurds, and Kurdish leaders like SDC President Ahmed are accusing them of atrocities and denouncing them as terrorists. Ahmed on Monday warned “a new ISIS is emerging” from among Turkey’s FSA allies and said the group is filled with “jihadists” and “former members of ISIS.”
The core problem, from the beginning of the Syrian civil war almost a decade ago, has been that Syria is a shadowy land filled with Islamists, extremists, and outright terrorists. None of those groups has the legitimacy or accountability of a nation-state, but many of them have lobbyists in Washington.
At the same time Ahmed was in D.C. to talk with the sponsors of legislation to sanction Turkey and denouncing Ankara’s Syrian allies – who were also America’s allies for most of the Obama administration – as monstrous war criminals, other Syrian groups were applauding President Donald Trump’s decision to break with Kurdish militia forces accused of having ties to extremists and committing “their fair share of crimes against Syrian citizens.”
International organizations like NATO keep sheepishly admitting the Turks have legitimate security concerns in the Kurdish-held region of northeastern Syria, even as they strongly disagree with how Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is going about resolving them.
Global organizations have done an absolutely terrible job of sorting out the mess in Syria, and the media is even worse.
Driven by the political needs of the Obama administration, which it wholeheartedly supported, American media did the least possible hard reporting on Syria and generally parroted whatever Obama officials said about the groups the administration supported, or belatedly thought better of supporting. Now the media cares only about putting the Trump administration in the worst possible light, so it floods the zone with reports of atrocities perpetrated by the FSA, the same group it couldn’t be bothered to investigate under Obama, but cannot spare anyone to dig into Turkey’s allegations of connections between the YPG and extremists.
There were never any clean cards to play in Syria, where Obama was desperate to be seen as doing something to back up his imperious rhetoric but unwilling (and probably politically unable) to commit the American military to pacifying the country. Frantic for “moderate” rebels to support against Assad, the Obama administration settled on the FSA, which looked like a reasonably effective fighting force; even more frantic for allies to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, he switched to the Kurdish militia. Warnings about the Islamists and jihadists in the FSA were ignored as resolutely as warnings about the YPG/PKK connection.
Caught deep in this bloody fog are Syria’s various civilian populations, who don’t deserve to be slaughtered or driven from their homes, no matter their religion or ethnicity. Turkish civilians don’t deserve to die either, but a great many of them have during the PKK insurgency, including Turkish civilians who are Kurds. Everyone in the region accuses everyone else of perpetrating atrocities against civilians, and they’re usually right.