DOHA, Qatar -- With Syrian rebels slowly gaining ground against the military forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and jihadist elements seemingly gaining ground within the rebel movement, the time seemed ripe to Syria’s most senior military defector for creating a rebel military command that would use Western-supplied arms and supplies to woo the disparate opposition fighters to accept a central authority.
That’s what former Maj. Gen. Mohammed Haj Ali proposed in mid-September when he met with American military and political experts at the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan.
“Their response was positive and very appreciative,” Ali told McClatchy. “They told me they’d be back to me quickly.”
Two months later, he’s still waiting. There’s been no comment, no communication or follow-up of any kind, he said.
That silence underscores the frustration that anti-Assad military leaders say they have with the Obama administration’s hands-off approach to the anti-Assad rebel movement. To be sure, some cash is flowing to the rebels, as are some small arms. But no one, Ali said in a series of interviews in Istanbul and in Doha, Qatar, “is helping us to unify the military.”
Ali, who’d headed Syria’s national defense college in Damascus, escaped to Jordan in mid-August with some 200 members of his extended family.
His plan, which he said had the support of other defected officers and some rebel commanders in Syria, is a simple structure that would establish central control over the many rebel groups in Syria through the flow of arms, ammunition and logistics. It would establish commanders and sub-commanders in each of Syria’s 14 provinces and divide the country into two broader commands.
At the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., officials didn’t dispute that they’d met with Ali. Gen. James N. Mattis, the head of Centcom, “is able to meet with a wide variety of interested parties on a number of issues,” public affairs officer Oscar P. Seara said when he was asked about a meeting of top Centcom officers with Ali. “He maintains the confidentiality of any of the meetings he has.”
The Obama administration dispatched a high-powered team, including Beth Jones, an assistant secretary of state, and Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, to Doha, Qatar, to monitor meetings of the Syrian civilian opposition with an aim of consolidating Assad’s political opponents into a single, far more effective organization.
Neither Jones nor Ford would comment about whether they’d met with Ali or what the U.S. government thought of his plan. “We have nothing for you on that,” spokesman Daniel J. Ernst told McClatchy by email.
Ali acknowledged that American officials and others are right to be concerned that Islamist extremists could become the dominant force in the opposition and seek armed confrontation with Syria’s Christians, most of whom have been sitting out the uprising, and Alawites, the Muslim sect that includes the Assads and has dominated the country for four decades.
Christians and Alawites each compose as much as 10 percent of Syria’s population.
So how can leaders of the armed resistance provide assurance that weapons would get to the right place? Ali was asked.
“That is why we are seeking a military organization to stop and control these volunteer jihadists,” Ali said. “Our main hope is to keep security in Syria and to avoid sectarian war. We are looking to establish an organization to keep the country together.”
The issue of organizing the armed Syrian resistance goes to the heart of the foreign-policy conundrum that the Obama administration faces. Assad’s deployment of the national air and ground forces – estimated at up to 400,000 troops – against a rebel force that’s estimated at 35,000 to 60,000 probably will mean that the current security structure can’t survive if he falls. But the rebels, having no central command, are unlikely to be able to step in to fill the vacuum should they triumph.
Islamist extremists are growing in influence in the anti-Assad movement because they’re receiving arms and ammunition from allies in the Persian Gulf region, while more Western-friendly forces allied with the Free Syrian Army, headquartered in Turkey, have received only limited support.
Ali’s proposal asked not that the United States supply the arms, merely that the U.S. endorse it and urge its Gulf allies to supply the weapons. “The main point is to establish a military organization” in which “everyone is in his rank and there is a leadership,” Ali said.
The danger otherwise is what happened in Libya, where local militias filled the security vacuum that was left when Moammar Gadhafi fell, and defy efforts by the new central government to take control.
In Syria – which has four times the population, divided into a mosaic of sects and religions – such a vacuum might lead to a second civil war and the disintegration of the state, with ominous implications for multi-ethnic Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq and every possibility of spilling over to Israel and Jordan as well.
One leading expert on Syria, Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Doha Center, a Qatar branch of the Washington-based Brookings Institution research center, concurs with the Syrian former general.
He said the issue of arming the rebels “has become a stale discussion” and that the real question now was “about laying the groundwork for a future Syrian security force.”
“Without that, you will see fragmentation,” he said, urging that the United States provide training for such a force now.
In Ali’s view, the future American role is “very important.” If the United States avoids a strong supportive role, “you will see another Afghanistan,” he told McClatchy. “All the surrounding countries have jihadists. Now they are coming, step by step, to Syria.”
Shaikh echoed his words. “The Syrians are telling us that if you don’t act, radical elements will take over,” he said. “That we have to take seriously.”