On July 27th, in a press briefing via teleconference by the Operation Inherent Resolve spokesperson in Baghdad, it was revealed that the United States was taking a first-of-its-kind action in Syria and officially cutting ties with a Syrian rebel group that it had been partnered with on a “train and equip” basis. While the exact nature of the rebel group’s transgression was not made abundantly clear, the wrongdoing was described by the spokesperson as “activities not focused on fighting ISIS.” Essentially, as was described in general terms several times throughout the briefing, the rebel group had strayed beyond fighting terrorist forces and had engaged Syrian government forces instead.
In the words of the Operation Inherent Resolve spokesperson, Colonel Dillon, “our partner forces know and have made a commitment to fight ISIS, and they are partnered with us as a part of the 1209 Program to do just that.” Their engagement of government forces was apparently enough of a transgression from the rules of the “1209 Program” to cause the US to take the unprecedented step of officially cutting ties with a Syrian rebel group partner under the program.
The “1209 Program” that he refers to is Section 1209 (Authority to Provide Assistance to the Vetted Syrian Opposition) of the National Defense Authorization Act, a section which was extended to run through the end of 2018. In the words of the Act, the first stated purpose is “Defending the Syrian people from attacks by the Islamic
State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)…” This purpose fits right in with Colonel Dillon’s explanation of cutting ties with the rebel group for overstepping its boundaries. However, this is not the only stated purpose of Section 1209. A closer read of the rest of the text, and attention to what is not explicitly barred in the Section, reveals some ambiguities about what the Act allows and doesn’t allow. These ambiguities may explain why it took so long to see the first instance of the US officially cutting ties with a Syrian rebel group, and why such an action may have been pounced upon as an opportunity to reinforce and signal a more hands-off strategy towards any ground-based engagements with the Syrian government forces.
The three stated purposes in Section 1209 are as follows:
(1) Defending the Syrian people from attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and securing territory controlled by the Syrian opposition.
(2) Protecting the United States, its friends and allies, and the Syrian people from the threats posed by terrorists in Syria.
(3) Promoting the conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria.
Again, the first half of the first purpose fits right in to Colonel Dillon’s explanation, as does the second purpose. Elsewhere, though, there is ambiguity. “Securing territory controlled by the Syrian opposition” is not worded to explicitly mean securing such territory from ISIL fighters and only ISIL fighters. In fact, “securing territory controlled by the Syrian opposition” can easily be construed to mean securing such territory from the group that they are opposing: the Syrian government forces.
The vague nature of the third purpose again leaves the door open for a variety of interpretations. “To end the conflict in Syria” entails much more than a fight against ISIL. If Section 1209 were intended only to focus on defeating terrorist forces, as implied in the briefing, it would seem unnecessary to include such a broad purpose that implies interaction between the US, the Syrian opposition, and the Syrian government.
Section 1209 defines the term “appropriately vetted” as such:
(1) The term “appropriately vetted” means, with respect to elements of the Syrian opposition and other Syrian groups and individuals, at a minimum–
(A) assessments of such elements, groups, and individuals for associations with terrorist groups, Shia militias aligned with or supporting the Government of Syria, and groups associated with the Government of Iran. Such groups include, but are not limited to, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Jabhat al Nusrah, Ahrar al Sham, other al-Qaeda related groups, and Hezbollah; and
(B) a commitment from such elements, groups, and individuals to promoting the respect for human rights and the rule of law.
Again, assume that Section 1209 was drafted with the intended purpose implied by Colonel Dillon: protecting against ISIL and staying completely hands-off with the Syrian government. Wouldn’t it make sense to include an explicit provision in the “appropriately vetted” definition to filter out any groups that had recently engaged in, or had plans for future engagements, with Syrian government forces? Of course, gauging the past actions and future intentions of Syrian rebel groups would be an inexact science, and mistakes would probably be made along the way. However, such a provision would seem to be much more meaningful than the exceedingly vague and largely weightless requirement for “respect for human rights and the rule of law.”
Related to vetting considerations, there is a lack of any clear wording within Section 1209 that describes when coalition forces should cut ties with any established rebel partners. There is no clear “If rebel group does X, the coalition shall terminate any assistance” provision that the US can point to as a black-and-white reason for cutting ties. While Section 1209 is heavy on reporting requirements (i.e. multiple, detailed reports required of the Secretary of Defense), it is somewhat surprising that a comparable attention to detail (or really any detail at all) is not given to the issue of defining what makes an unacceptable coalition partner.
Trying to take hints regarding larger strategic purposes from this unprecedented action admittedly involves much speculation. This first-ever cutting of ties raises some important questions:
- Why did it take this long for the first official cutting of ties to happen? Did the United States really have a flawless record in judging the motives of Syrian rebel groups up until this point?
- Has the vague wording of Section 1209, especially with regard to its purpose and vetting requirements, provided some loopholes in terms of engagements with Syrian government forces up until this point?
- What does the fact that the United States went out of its way to make publicly transparent this first cutting of ties with a Syrian rebel group, despite the apparent difficulty in pinpointing exactly what part of Section 1209 was violated, tell us about the message that the administration wants to send?
It would seem hard to believe that the US has not erred once in its judgment of regional partners up until this point in time. Perhaps this development can be seen as a chance for the administration to “scapegoat” a rebel group and publicly signal a more hands-off approach on the ground in Syria. Assuming the rebel groups’ collective track record was not perfect up until this point (in other words, assuming that there were some minor engagements with Syrian government forces that were swept under the rug previously), this willingness to signal a hands-off strategy and suddenly “enforce” Section 1209 represents a shift from the previous administration. Of course, such signalling would fit the narrative of President Trump’s desire for more friendly posturing with Russia, due to Russian support for the Syrian government. Furthermore, such a strategic move would come on the heels of another “hands-off” Trump decision “to end the CIA’s covert program to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels battling the government of Bashar al-Assad,” as reported in the Washington Post.
One thing to keep an eye on going forward will be any future chemical attacks attributed to the Syrian government, as Trump showed earlier this year that such attacks, in his eyes, warrant the flexing of US military muscle in the region. While the “flexing” was relatively moderate the first time around (Syrian and Russian forces were warned before the Tomahawk missile strike in order to minimize risk to their personnel), it will be interesting to see if and how President Trump increases his response in the event of another chemical attack.
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