Bashar al-Assad is digging in around Damascus, reportedly having razed 500 homes and up to five mosques in a suburb in order to fortify the capital from a rebel attack. One of the neighborhoods is adjacent to an air base, and reports indicate that the demolitions have made room for embankments and moats. Up to 7,000 foreign fighters are said to be participating in a wide-ranging effort by Assad’s forces to regroup around Damascus after a string of losses around the country have put the regime on its back foot.
Few things are more visibly a sign that the regime is in mortal danger than its digging up its capitol for siege preparations. And yet, as a weakened Assad regime clings on, Reuters reports that the total of American-trained fighters participating in the fighting in Syria remains at zero. “We are certainly below our expectation on throughput,” Army Colonel Steve Warren is reported to have said. “As far as recruits for the Syrian train-and-equip mission, we’re satisfied. It’s the final step that we’re having difficulty (with).” 6,000 Syrians have volunteered, and 4,000 are still waiting to be vetted. Some 100-200 are currently undergoing training. The U.S. plan had called for training up to 5,000 fighters per year.
The sarcastic response would be to note that the United States government is the only organization in the world that could fail to find people to fight in Lebanon. It reminds one of the old saw, that if you put D.C. in charge of the Sahara desert, in ten years you’d have a shortage of sand.
Only, as you, we, and everyone not born yesterday knows, the problem isn’t a lack of available men who want to fight. The problem is that the Administration appears to be caught somewhere between, on the one hand, a desire to do as little as possible while making a pretense of action for political reasons and, on the other, a genuine desire to get involved but an inability to bite the bullet on backing the array of viable actors, who at present occupy a spectrum from soft-Islamist to ISIS.
But events are no longer waiting for us, and neither are other actors. The Turks and the Saudis have given heavy arms and financial backing to thousands of Islamist fighters, including al Nusra (the local branch of al Qaeda). These are the men who are pushing Assad to the brink, and who will be looking to shape a post-Assad Syria.
We passed up our chance to back the true moderates early in the war. The fact that the options now range from bad to worse was foreseeable, and largely of our own making. But even within that range of unfortunate options, some are much better than others. If the U.S. continues to vacillate, we’ll pass on much of our ability to choose even among those.