Fight terrorism in Syria by supporting the opposition

The Syrian Opposition went to Geneva to make peace and stop the killing. We put forward a comprehensive plan for a transitional government in Syria. We called for the expulsion of all foreign fighters and gained the buy-in of key Free Syrian Army units to fight international terrorism. In Geneva we presented a vision of what comes after Assad.  The regime, in contrast, chose to emulate the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea in its intransigence and behavior.   

We left Geneva deeply dissatisfied. But we will not close the door on peace.  For it is a peace that benefits all Syrians, regardless of sectarian or religious affiliation. It is a peace that is desperately needed as the regime pursues “industrial scale” mass killings. 

Notably, it is also a peace that will greatly impact American national security interests. 

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The time for robust American action in Syria has come, now that peace talks have-- thanks to the Assad regime and its backers-- stalled.  The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the White House will begin to take a hard re-look at military options.  The American people should be reassured that Syria is not intractable; there are viable military options for America to pursue that do not endanger American lives and ultimately protect Syrian lives. 

We in the opposition will continue to press the importance of a political solution as the primary pathway for a transition to stability, peace, and countering extremism in Syria. 

But a solution in Syria that deals with both Assad and terrorism will require a parallel American-led effort to strengthen the Free Syrian Army and establish a balance of power on the ground. The Free Syrian Army, the forces that are best positioned and most willing to fight extremists, is making significant gains on the battlefields despite a disadvantage in support. The FSA is vastly outmatched in funding and equipment by al-Qaeda and Hezbollah forces.

The Syrian Opposition needs a renewed program to move massive amounts of military support to moderate fighters as part of the dual track process built on making peace through strength. The provision of proper tools and American support to the moderate coalition of Syrian nationalists that is fighting a sustained campaign to destroy Al Qaeda gives the United States a powerful opportunity to achieve core security and anti-terrorism goals without risking American lives while genuinely helping the Syrian people.

This is a two-front war. First, there were prescient warnings by former CIA deputy director Mike Morrell that the growing vacuum in Syria and subsequent rise of Al Qaeda posses one of the greatest threats to American national security interests.  More recently, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Al Qaeda in Syria is poised to directly threaten U.S. national security. 

And so America’s strategic interests converge with the Syrian opposition’s as illustrated by Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al Zawahir’s declaration of war on the moderate Free Syrian Army and opposition leaders on January 7.  More than ever, there is clear moral and strategic rationale to empowering the opponents of Al Qaeda and Assad in Syria. 

The key to winning both fronts of the war is to take down Assad. It is the Assad regime’s cynical covert operational support to extremist elements that has allowed al Qaeda to establish its most dangerous global presence— stretching from the Euphrates river valley far into the Mediterranean coastal plains. 

It is the close operational ties between Assad and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards that serves as a nexus for Al Qaeda’s expansion, confirmed by defected member of Syrian parliament who recently revealed  evidence that Assad’s chief of the General Security Directorate played a direct role facilitating foreign, extremist fighters into Iraq.

Preventing future international terror attacks from being cooked in Syria will require serious investment of American hardware and a fresh assessment of opposition forces on the ground.   

Despite misinformed impression among some Beltway insiders that there are no Syrian moderates to support; they do in fact exist. We have commanders who have the credibility and willpower to effectively leverage American training and equipment.  But, many of them feel as if they’ve been left out in the cold.

Take for instance, commander Jamal Maarouf. Jamal, a rare combination of tactical proficiency, operational credibility, and political savvy is leading the offensive against Al Qaeda.  Another is Colonel Ahmed Saoud, a senior commander whose fighters played the leading role in forcing the fanatical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria from the strategically critical town of Maaraet al Nouman. Dangerously under-equipped, their forces are pushing the extremists back day by day. 

As famed Syrian activist Razan Zeitouneh once said: “The West is using Al-Qaeda and the extremists as a pretext, yet it contributed to their ascendance and popularity by delaying its support to the Free Syrian Army, one of the opposition’s national projects that adheres to an ideology far from extremism and non-national agendas.”  

And so a radical departure from the status quo is in order. The Syrian Opposition now exhibits all the characteristics long sought after by the international community: a credible and effective partner with a moderate political vision capable of fighting extremists.  

Now is the time for the Obama administration to work with Congress in finding creative solutions for a significant expansion in the scale and quality of support to opposition forces, such as a Pentagon sponsored train and equip program that would reinforce and sustain the fight against Al Qaeda and Hezbollah.  

When it comes to providing the necessary American support, it is now high time to double it.

Shahbandar, a Syrian-American, is a former Department of Defense foreign affairs specialist and currently serves as a senior adviser to the Syrian Opposition Coalition office in Washington D.C.