December 13, 2013

DUBAI — A year ago, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) created what it called a “Supreme Military Council” under Gen. Salim Idriss to coordinate operations by moderate rebel groups. This week, that structure was rocked as the group’s U.S.-supplied warehouse in northern Syria was overrun by rebels from a rival Islamist faction — triggering a frantic effort to coordinate the opposition’s ragged military efforts.

Idriss met Thursday and Friday in Antakya, Turkey, with representatives of the Islamic Front and Qatar, its chief backer in northern Syria. The agenda was how to coordinate future actions and halt fratricidal attacks like the one this week. The premise for cooperation is that both moderate and Islamist rebels oppose al-Qaeda, as well as the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But although coordination among moderates and Islamists has been discussed for several months, the battlefield remains a free for all.

The chaos in northern Syria has demonstrated the weakness of Idriss’s operation, and also the failure of the United States to organize a coherent command-and-control structure to support him. It also illustrates the ruinous competition among different backers of the rebels, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turk

Gen. Salim Idriss (Ozan Koseozan Kose/Agence Frances-Presse via Getty Images)
Gen. Salim Idriss (Ozan Koseozan Kose/Agence Frances-Presse via Getty Images)

ey. As they have bickered, al-Qaeda has become the dominant force in northern Syria.

“The only way to stop Syria from becoming a new Waziristan is for the U.S. to put more skin in the game and bring the rebel factions together,” argued one FSA source. Whether the Obama administration is ready to make such a commitment is unclear. For U.S. officials, the priority remains a political settlement in Geneva, and assistance to the rebels is seen chiefly as bargaining tool.

A well-considered plan for restructuring rebel forces was shared with me by the FSA official. It contains some useful self-criticism of past efforts by Idriss and his colleagues. It is prefaced with a wise admonition from the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu: “The line between disorder and order lies in logistics.”

“Since the formation of the Supreme Military Council in December 2012, the Free Syrian Army has failed to coalesce into a guerrilla army capable of significantly expanding its control in the liberated territories,” the memo begins. It argues that logistical failures have been critical: Ammunition has been in short supply, transport has been inadequate, border security has been weak, funding hasn’t been coordinated and operations haven’t been unified.

“At a time when al Qaeda’s affiliates threaten to make dangerous gains and entrench their control in northern and eastern Syria, a new approach is required to structure the Free Syrian Army in a sustainable manner attuned to the needs on the battlefield,” the planning memo argues, urging that the FSA recognize its “limitations and weaknesses.”

To remedy these shortcomings, the memo proposes creating a “logistical board” that includes the seven major moderate and Islamist factions, excluding only the al-Qaeda affiliates, the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The plan also urges creation of a “Joint Distribution Center Command” in the north that can set operational requirements and coordinate delivery of supplies and equipment in the field. Military caches should be pre-positioned “closer to the frontlines rather than in the rear,” the memo argues.

Another crucial recommendation, given the past squabbling between Saudis, Qataris, Turks and Americans, is to “unify patronage networks as a means to improve cohesion of forces on the ground.” In other words, there should be one funnel through which all financial and military assistance flows to encourage better coordination.

It’s late in the day for the Syrian opposition to be dealing with such basics. But unless they’re addressed, the group will fail in challenging both Assad and the al-Qaeda forces that have become entrenched in northeast Syria. Having been blown out of his headquarters in northern Syria, a battered Idriss has no choice but to rethink strategy or quit the fight.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.