Saturday, September 20, 2014

Our Aid to Syria's Rebels Could Be Vital

I know that the consensus is that our plan to arm 5,000 Syrian rebels means nothing. While it will take some time to train and arm these rebels, they could have an impact far beyond what their number would suggest if they become the rebel strike force.

After years of refusing to arm rebels in Syria for a variety of worries that are now clearly lower on the scale of worries, we will arm Syrian rebels in serious manner:

President Barack Obama said on Thursday that strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress for the training and arming of moderate Syrian rebels showed Americans were united in the fight against Islamic State militants.

The article doesn't note the number, but the plan is to arm and train 5,000 rebels.

I know, if President Obama is planning this, it must be ineffective. That's surely not a wrong way to approach any question.

But not this one. It could provide the rebels with an edge they haven't had before--a mobile strike force.

Both sides in the civil war (or all sides, more accurately) have most of their military manpower in local defense forces that are largely strategically immobile.

The foreign jihadis have an advantage that their men are not tied to any village or neighborhood that they want to defend. So they can move around and strike targets.

Assad, too, has a small force of mobile troops that he moves around. Even this was insufficient so he got Hezbollah and a Shia Foreign Legion paid for by Iran to be his shock troops to spearhead offensives.

Early in this year, I said that the moderate rebels really needed their own mobile strike force:

In addition to building up a southern front of reliably non-jihadi rebels who could march on Damascus if there is a regime collapse, or which might eventually be strong enough to fight its way in, we should try to build up mobile rebel brigades that could wipe out those pockets of Assad forces in the east. Lack of rebels who can be moved around the country to reinforce success, counter regime offensives, or exploit regime weaknesses is a major impediment to pushing Assad over.

Five thousand is the size of a brigade. Assuming these are all shooters unlike a regular brigade, 10 battalions of trained troops with good weapons including heavier weapons to bolster and lead the strategically immobile rebels on attacks could be sent singly or in groups to different parts of the war to grab land from Assad and ISIL, ending these two groups' monopoly on mobile shock troops.

This kind of impact will raise the prestige of the non-jihadi rebels and encourage recruitment to their ranks.

And if Assad's forces believe the war just got longer and harder, how many will believe that they can personally survive the war?

Don't dismiss this program. It will take time to build. It would have been nice to have done this earlier. But at least we are starting now.

UPDATE: One, I don't mean to imply that the 500-man units would march along as a big unit. I assume that they'd travel in smaller groups.

Two, while we anticipate sending them off as trained in smaller units, rather than being mobile strike forces, we anticipate them being used to hold a buffer zone inside Syria along the Iraq border:

In a further sign of a measured approach, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, outlined a narrow mission for the prospective Syrian force, saying the lightly armed fighters might be assigned to recapture and police Syria's now-open eastern border to prevent militants from crossing into Iraq.

That's interesting. We could be trying to set up liberated zones in the east with these troops, in the south with our effort based out of Jordan, and perhaps in the north with Turkey's help (as the Turks are reportedly again thinking about now).

Also, this has implications for our air strikes in Syria. If we expect the 5,000 to hold a buffer zone, I imagine our air strikes would be carried out to shape the battlefield before the rebels arrive and then to help defend the buffer zone.

UPDATE: More on the effect we want the rebels we train to have:

Five thousand's never been the end state. It's -- there's -- there's -- we've had estimates anywhere from 12,000 to 15,000 is what we believe they would need to recapture lost territory in eastern Syria.

I assume this means other rebels will join with the 5,000 we train. There are over 100,000 rebels in Syria, if memory serves me. But most are local forces simply holding or operating in their own area. So by building a force that acts as a mobile strike force that holds a buffer zone along the Iraq border with our support (how that works with Iraq effectively on Assad's side, I don't know), we can leverage existing rebels to support the 5,000 and get to that 12,000 to 15,000 number of rebels.

Or we train more past the next year. That would be good, too.