Syria’s ‘third op­tion’

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY LABIB AL NAH­HAS

As has be­come ob­vi­ous, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­sponse to the Syr­ian con­flict is an ab­ject fail­ure. No clear strat­egy has been de­ter­mined; the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “red lines” have not been hon­ored. Short-term, stop­gap mea­sures in­formed by the Iraq and Afghanistan ex­pe­ri­ences, along with the noise gen­er­ated by a media fix­ated on the Is­lamic State, have taken pri­or­ity over achiev­able, long-term goals. The re­sult: a death toll com­monly es­ti­mated at be­tween 200,000 and 300,000 peo­ple (though it’s cer­tainly higher), more than 11 mil­lion dis­placed and nu­mer­ous cities in ru­ins.

Nowhere is this fail­ure clearer than in the con­se­quence of the mis­guided way that Syr­ian rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies are la­beled as ei­ther “mod­er­ate” or “ex­trem­ist.”

In De­cem­ber, Sec­re­tary of State John F. Kerry stated that “Syr­i­ans should not have to choose be­tween a tyrant and the ter­ror­ists.” There was, Kerry de­clared, a third op­tion: “the mod­er­ate Syr­ian op­po­si­tion who are fight­ing both ex­trem­ists and [Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-]As­sad ev­ery day.” Un­for­tu­nately, this com­mend­able view has bro­ken down be­cause the United States has de­fined the term “mod­er­ate” in such a nar­row and ar­bi­trary fash­ion that it ex­cludes the bulk of the main­stream op­po­si­tion.

The group to which I be­long, Ahrar al-Sham, is one ex­am­ple. Our name means “Free Men of Syria.” We con­sider our­selves a main­stream Sunni Is­lamic group that is led by Syr­i­ans and fights for Syr­i­ans. We are fight­ing for jus­tice for the Syr­ian peo­ple. Yet we have been falsely ac­cused of hav­ing or­ga­ni­za­tional links to al-Qaeda and of es­pous­ing al-Qaeda’s ide­ol­ogy.

Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth. We be­lieve that Syria needs a na­tional uni­fy­ing pro­ject that can­not be con­trolled or de­liv­ered by a sin­gle party or group and should not be bound to a sin­gle ide­ol­ogy. We be­lieve in strik­ing a bal­ance that re­spects the le­git­i­mate as­pi­ra­tions of the ma­jor­ity as well as pro­tects mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties and en­ables them to play a real and pos­i­tive role in Syria’s fu­ture. We be­lieve in a mod­er­ate fu­ture for Syria that pre­serves the state and in­sti­tutes re­forms that ben­e­fit all Syr­i­ans.

Late last year, dozens of our top lead­ers were as­sas­si­nated in a bomb at­tack. We re­cov­ered from this set­back, and a new lead­er­ship quickly emerged, con­firm­ing the high level of in­sti­tu­tion­al­ism and pro­fes­sion­al­ism within our ranks, as well as the deep sup­port we en­joy within the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion. Syr­i­ans con­sider us an in­te­gral, val­ued el­e­ment of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary land­scape, yet we have been un­fairly vil­i­fied by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion from Day One.

Stuck in­side their own bub­ble, White House pol­i­cy­mak­ers have al­lo­cated mil­lions of U.S. tax­payer dol­lars to sup­port failed CIA ef­forts to sup­port so-called “mod­er­ate” forces in Syria. But these “mod­er­ate” groups have proved to be a dis­ap­point­ment on nearly ev­ery count, not least of all in con­fronting the Is­lamic State. Fur­ther, the self-de­feat­ing pol­icy of re­gard­ing the war against the Is­lamic State as be­ing fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent from, and in some cases di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed to, ef­forts to re­move As­sad from power has brought no end to ei­ther bat­tle.

By Washington’s own ad­mis­sion, the sys­tem­atic death and de­struc­tion — of­ten through chem­i­cal weapons — wreaked upon Sunni towns and vil­lages by As­sad’s Alaw­ite-dom­i­nated army re­mains a huge re­cruit­ing agent for the Is­lamic State, just as for­mer Iraqi prime min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki’s sec­tar­ian poli­cies drove or­di­nary Sun­nis into the arms of these ex­trem­ists. But while the United States ap­plied pres­sure to re­move Ma­liki from power, some in Washington (and at the United Na­tions) still hold on to the ridicu­lous no­tion that As­sad could be part of the so­lu­tion for Syria.

In fact, re­cent vic­to­ries by our com­rades con­firm that the Syr­ian regime is weak and dy­ing. It has lost all ca­pac­ity for strate­gic ini­tia­tive and is suf­fer­ing from crip­pling man­power short­ages. As­sad is now in­creas­ingly re­liant on Ira­nian funded Shi­ite vol­un­teers, but even these for­eign fight­ers — drawn from as far away as Afghanistan — can­not turn the tide.

The moral case against As­sad should have been enough to dis­count him as an op­tion, but now the facts of war have made it clear that he is fin­ished. The only re­main­ing ques­tion is who will de­liver the coup de grace: the Is­lamic State or the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion. That ques­tion should prompt Washington to ad­mit that the Is­lamic State’s ex­trem­ist ide­ol­ogy can be de­feated only through a home­grown Sunni al­ter­na­tive — with the term “mod­er­ate” de­fined not by CIA han­dlers but by Syr­i­ans them­selves.

De­spite a dis­ap­point­ing lack of gen­uine en­gage­ment from the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, we re­main com­mit­ted to di­a­logue. The is­sues that need to be dis­cussed are how to end As­sad’s reign, how to de­feat the Is­lamic State and how to en­sure that a sta­ble and rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment in Damascus puts Syria on the path to peace, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and eco­nomic re­cov­ery while avoid­ing the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the state. It is not too late for the United States to change course. Kerry’s “third op­tion” ex­ists — but only if Washington is will­ing to open its eyes and see it.

The writer is head of for­eign po­lit­i­cal re­la­tions for Ahrar al-Sham.

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