The Illusion of Syria’s ‘Moderate’ Rebels

In militarily going after ISIS, President Obama is again letting his foreign policy be shaped by the popular illusions of Official Washington, particularly the idea that aiding Syrian “moderates” is a viable part of the strategy, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

The voluminous commentary about President Obama’s speech on going after ISIS reflects the usual mixture of genuine policy analysis and pursuit of political agendas. A prevalent misdirection exhibited both by those politically opposed to this particular president and those who support him, as well as by many of those who are neutral, is to assume that the strategy laid out in the speech is primarily the product of Barack Obama’s thinking and preferences. It isn’t.

Many of us, if we took full account of current American perceptions and sentiments about ISIS, longer American habits in thinking about terrorism, and the political requirements of serving as U.S. president could have written pretty much the same speech. The strategy in it is primarily the product of those public perceptions, sentiments and habits, which are too strong for most American politicians, including those in Congress as well as the White House, to resist.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, says President Obama's plan for arming Syria's "moderate" rebels has strong support in Congress.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, says President Obama’s plan for arming Syria’s “moderate” rebels has strong support in Congress.


We cannot read Barack Obama’s mind, but the frequently voiced comment, mostly from confirmed critics of the President, that he only slowly realized ISIS to be a serious menace and is belatedly recognizing the need to act forcefully against it is very likely incorrect. It is far more probable that the President’s assessment of the group and of the costs and risks of the various measures that might be taken against it has stayed fairly constant.

What evolved, and evolved rapidly, was the public alarm about the group. This latter interpretation conforms more closely to how we have seen Barack Obama operate and how we have seen American public opinion (and the political responses to it) operate. Mr. Obama had tried (somewhat, though not hard enough) to convey a careful and reasonable assessment of the group’s significance, and of the downsides of possible further U.S. actions in the Middle East. But reasonableness lost out to a groundswell of public sentiment.

There will be disappointments and failures in some of the measures the President described in his speech, and some of the risks involved are apt to materialize into serious costs to U.S. interests. The failures and costs, as well as whatever successes might come from the measures to be taken, should be attributed less to the mind of Barack Obama than to the collective mental habits of the American public.

The most fundamental respect in which this is true is with the overall degree of alarm about ISIS, which far exceeds what would be warranted by careful and sober analysis of the threat that this group, notwithstanding its abhorrent brutality, poses to U.S. interests. Prevailing public sentiment has equated gains in dusty territory in the Middle East with the threat of a terrorist spectacular in the U.S. homeland.

The American public is basing its perception on emotion, and its record in gauging terrorist threats that way is poor. It reacts to the past rather than assessing the future. It is reacting now not only to the past trauma of 9/11 but to also to the gruesomeness of recent videotaped killings of captives, which does not tell us much more about ISIS than we already knew, apart from confirming the group’s willingness to do deadly things in response to U.S. use of force against it, which does not constitute an argument to use force.

The American public looks at terrorism in general not as the timeless tactic that it is but rather in terms of its embodiment in specific named groups or individuals, “the terrorists”, whom the public believes must be eliminated.

This view overlooks the frequently changing roster of groups emerging and dying, splitting and metastasizing. It also overlooks the whole motivations side of when and why anyone either joins or forms a group that has used terrorism, and when and why a resistance group already in existence would resort to terrorism, especially terrorism against the United States. And it overlooks whether mounting a very visible campaign against a group may play into the group’s own plans and ambitions.

The conception of counterterrorism as consisting of the elimination of a fixed group of bad guys is related to the further American inclination to equate counterterrorism with use of military force. The whole “war on terror” metaphor exacerbated this unfortunate tendency.

Military force is only one of several counterterrorist instruments, it is not necessarily the best one to use in any one circumstance, and the sorts of terrorist activity that ought to worry us the most present few good military targets. Disproportionate emphasis on the military instrument also tends to be associated with underestimation of the counterproductive effects that ensue when collateral damage leads to more anger and more motivation to resort to terrorism.

This emphasis also has been associated with the argument advanced by political opponents of Mr. Obama that somehow if he had found a way to extend the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the eight-and-a-half years it had already lasted that ISIS would not have been a problem. This argument has always been rather rich, given that ISIS, under a different name, came into existence as a direct result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and overthrow of the incumbent regime.

The historical amnesia involved with the argument extends as well to events later in the last decade, when even the “surge”, although it temporarily reversed the escalating violence in Iraq, as 30,000 U.S. troops ought to have been able to do, failed to achieve its more fundamental objective of making possible political accommodations in Baghdad that in turn would make possible stability in Iraq. This experience shows how especially fanciful is the notion that a later and smaller presence of U.S. troops would somehow have made Nouri al-Maliki behave like a good prime minister who would practice inclusive and non-authoritarian politics.

Another recurring pattern in the American public philosophy that is not unique to the issue of terrorism but has been especially apparent with it is that, simply put, any problem has a feasible solution, and that it is within the power of the United States to achieve that solution. If a serious problem persists, according to this view, then it is only because incumbent U.S. policy-makers have lacked the will or the smarts to find and implement the right solution. This mindset will be the basic source of disappointment with any expectation of “destroying” a terrorist group rather than just degrading or containing it.

The same mindset also keeps knocking up against reality in Syria, where there have been no good solutions, for the United States any more than for others to implement. Here is where we hear another recurring “if only” argument from opponents of the administration, to the effect that if only more aid had been given earlier to “moderate” oppositionists, extremists such as ISIS would not have become as much of a problem as they have.

This search for, and focus on, the elusive moderates has been such a salient issue for so long that it is a safe bet that it has been one of the most exhaustively studied topics for the administration, well before this week’s presidential speech.

Among the realities that any such study would have uncovered are that what passes for a moderate Syrian opposition has always been badly divided and lacking in internal support, that the dynamics of civil warfare inherently favor the less inhibited, by definition, less moderate, elements, that it is almost impossible to provide material aid to such elements without some of that aid making its way (as it already has) into the hands of the very forces such as ISIS that we want to counter, and that there is no way of squaring the circle of beating back ISIS without effectively aiding the Syrian regime that we also supposedly would like to be defeated.

But in a larger anti-ISIS arena in which good solutions also may be hard to come by, and in which the popular and political American resistance to reintroducing U.S. combat troops is still a major factor, we keep coming back by default to this business of trying to aid “moderate” Syrian rebels.

Congressional pusillanimity plays a significant role here: members of neither party want to vote before midterm elections on an authorization to use U.S. military forces, but supporting anything about aiding the proverbial moderates in Syria is a no-U.S.-boots-on-the-ground way for members to show their anti-ISIS enthusiasm.

Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, commented that “since there has been bipartisan support for arming the moderate opposition,” maybe the administration gave it a prominent place in its anti-ISIS package “because they thought this is the one piece that they could get a lot of congressional buy-in on without doing a lot of selling” He’s probably right.

Yep, there is a lot in that package that deserves questioning and criticism. In searching for the reasons why, most Americans ought to look first not at the man in the White House but instead in the mirror.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

14 comments for “The Illusion of Syria’s ‘Moderate’ Rebels

  1. bill
    September 16, 2014 at 09:23

    Some months ago Robert Parry penned another excellent article where he argued that Obama and Putin were both taken by surprise by the State Dept Maiden coup and warned us a lot of mud would fly before they had the space to negotiate a soft landing.A while later Mr Parry offered a slightly different perspective where he lamented ” Why of why did you run for the Presidency Mr Obama if you dont have the spine to take on the Neocons spiking your administration?” It would be interesting to learn where he is exactly now in that it certainly strongly seems that Obama is playing out the scene in precisely the way it has been written ,to seek to weaken and destroy Assad under the cover of plausible deniability ,by this nonsense about moderate rebels when Israel cannot be persuaded to lift a finger despite all the massive military aide given and Turkey waves a friendly no thanks let the Kurds spend their blood,not us, and Iran cant stop laughing…There is of course another way which the author hasnt mentioned: Stop giving weapons to all of them

  2. Zachary Smith
    September 15, 2014 at 20:32

    But reasonableness lost out to a groundswell of public sentiment.

    The failures and costs, as well as whatever successes might come from the measures to be taken, should be attributed less to the mind of Barack Obama than to the collective mental habits of the American public.

    The American public is basing its perception on emotion, and its record in gauging terrorist threats that way is poor.

    “the terrorists” — whom the public believes must be eliminated.

    Another recurring pattern in the American public philosophy …

    most Americans ought to look first not at the man in the White House but instead in the mirror.

    I’m not sure what Mr. Pillar is trying to do here, but blaming the coming campaign on me, my neighbor and some woman in Idaho who runs the school library is mighty strange stuff. Mr. Obama is perfectly capable of ignoring the wishes of the electorate – in fact he’s done little else since taking office in early 2009.

    It’s true that the “moderate rebels” business is pure nonsense, but why lay the foundation for future claims that BHO had no choice but to dive into the new wars he’s working to engineer?

    BHO is, in my opinion, no kind of steady and stable voice of reason. He’s merely a voice, and says what his handlers tell him to say. Left to his own devices, he panics and does stupid stuff like authorizing the firing of Shirley Sherrod.

    One role of those elected in a Republic is to be as ‘balance wheels’ – to provide a calming force for the excited passions of the misinformed multitudes. The representatives ought to be sober and stable types who carefully weigh the issues. Instead, they’ve become knee-jerk reactive themselves.

    The People are being manipulated. Americans can always be horrified if the stimulus is strong enough. If the current batch of beheadings doesn’t do the job, ISIS can start decapitating cute kids or nuns. Or slowly torturing some innocents to death on their videos.

    IMO the timing of current ISIS videos is mighty convenient, for they are being used to justify further destabilizations of Iraq and provide cover for Regime Change in Syria.

    • Yaj
      September 15, 2014 at 21:46


      That suggests a perfect level of control. Hard to imagine anything working that perfectly, even in the Syrian “rebels” are the creation of Washington and the Saudis.

    • Masud
      September 17, 2014 at 06:56

      Zach, have you seen ‘A Strategy for Israel in the Nineteen Eighties’ by Oded Yanone? What do you think of it in current scenario?

  3. F. G. Sanford
    September 15, 2014 at 16:50

    Asymmetric warfare is a tried and true military concept that has been used with great success throughout history. The answer to it, COIN, is a concept that began to develop during Vietnam. Many military minds of recent repute have ridden that weary concept all the way to a four star retirement. That COIN has never produced a military victory does not seem to discourage its proponents. Che Guevara used asymmetric warfare to liberate Cuba from American organized crime. General Giap prevailed against a bombing campaign in which more bombs were dropped on his country than were dropped on all countries by all forces during the entirety of World War Two. Ironically, George Washington used it to defeat the largest empire in human history, Great Britain. Small, seemingly amorphous and inconsequential military assets are deployed, even sacrificed, with the intention of provoking a massive response. While unable to prevail, these offensive maneuvers yield responses which create target-rich environments, cause vast expenditures of resources, and gradually demoralize the enemy. Conventional weapons and tactics almost always win the battles, but ultimately lose the war. We’ve heard of The Monroe Doctrine, The Eisenhower Doctrine, The Carter Doctrine, and The Bush Doctrine. The strategy currently unfolding should appropriately be called, “The bin Laden Doctrine”. Girlish cheerleaders like Lindsey Graham and doddering fools like John McCain are holding up the American end of the strategy by whipping up the predictable response. Encouraged by their deep conviction that the “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave” is neither, these tools of the defense and finance sector are demanding a decisive response. Never mind that our “ally”, Saudi Arabia has beheaded 113 people since Foley was captured 21 months ago. Never mind that our “allies”, the British and French, used the Guillotine to behead German war criminals after World War Two. Never mind that our Ukrainian Nazi allies are reported to have sent the severed heads of East Ukrainian separatists to their relatives in boxes through the postal system. Yes, Americans are horrified. The desired result, analyzed in terms of the war party’s fervent desires, looks more MI-Sixey than IS-Crazy. Especially since the Chief Chopper has a British accent. Osama bin Laden would be proud of his legacy. Now that Americans have desensitized themselves with prurient morbid curiosity produced by those head-chopper videos, has anyone considered tit-for-tat? Time to show the “dead bin Laden” pictures, boys. You do have them, don’t you? IS would be horrified! But wait- the war party is using the bin Laden hoax to blackmail the Benghazi bunglers to keep their mouths shut. Guess they’ll have to photoshop some gory pictures. Betcha Hollywood could help! Hey if it works for Caliph Ibrahim, it could work for us too!

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 16, 2014 at 14:28

      F.G. Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox comes to mine when you mention COIN warfare.

      I agree Osama lives on, as we pursue this awfully expensive maneuver in the Middle East. If we lose this thing it will not be for the lack of bombs. Btw how much is a gallon of JP5 going for these days? It wouldn’t surprise me if there is a Middle East surcharge added to each bill, either. As you so very well pointed out Bin Laden’s plan was to spend us into ruin…like he did the old Soviet Union in with Afghanistan. Hey, as far as Osama was concerned he won it. Brzezinski still delights over that one.

      Save the Benghazi disaster for Hillary. Oh my, it’s going to be a terribly long presidential run this coming year…somebody help me, please!
      Joe Tedesky

  4. Joe Tedesky
    September 15, 2014 at 14:56

    I have come to the belief that this whole ‘War on Terror’ is a big scam. Wesley Clark back in 2005 talked about the military plant to invade several Middle Eastern country’s over the next few years. Well the next few years is over, and General Clark has been found to be telling the truth.

    If we were to really want to stop ISIS then we would partner up with Iran, and knock off this truly horrific group of be-headers. Why, not team up with Russia? Now, that would be an ally mix that would be seriously strong and hard to beat. BTW where is Israel and Saudi Arabia in all of this?

    Here is a description of allies and events as per Wayne Madsen ….

    • F. G. Sanford
      September 16, 2014 at 03:42

      Joe, based on everything I’ve read, Madsen’s analysis makes perfect sense. As Zachary points out below, Professor Pillar invites us to blame ourselves for the administrations failures. I voted for The President twice, and I did so in the hope that he would not be just another tool of “The Company”. This article eloquently attempts to shift the perspective to an Israeli-centric worldview sympathetic to the notion that no other choices were possible. As Madsen points out, Mr. Obama is likely a creature of the CIA, and I suspect Professor Pillar is himself, “still on the payroll”.

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 16, 2014 at 10:34

      F.G. Maybe if our MSM Infotainment were to report the news correctly, well then I would advocate every American look in the mirror and own up to their responsibility. The only reason Americans are hearing about ISIS, is due to the fact that lobbing off heads makes juicy news script. For the news media to endeavor into the high grass explaining who is actually behind ISIS…well, it’s boring, and way to revealing. All, you need to know is these guys are terrorist…did I also mention they are Muslim? Did you know they are coming to your town to cut your head off?

      I voted for President Obama. I guess anyone can ‘hope’, right? Imagine Romney…what cabinet position would McCain and Graham have by now? That’s as scary as having ISIS on Main Street.

      BTW these days I’m afraid to look in the mirror…the NSA maybe on the other side looking in! Joe Tedesky

  5. Joe
    September 15, 2014 at 14:42

    Remember the “moderate” Syrian rebel who turned out to be a cannibal?

    Remember the “moderate” rebels who sold Steven Sotloff to ISIL for $50K.

    Counting on “moderate” rebels is a dumb move.

    • Yaj
      September 15, 2014 at 21:44

      I shouldn’t ask, but got a source:

      “Remember the “moderate” rebels who sold Steven Sotloff to ISIL for $50K”?

  6. Gerd Balzer
    September 15, 2014 at 14:39

    When will the US ever learn?
    By now your politicians SHOULD know,your moderate rebells of today will be your out-of-control terrorists of the future.That’s the way it has ever been,Taliban,Al Qaida,IS all of them once were your good rebells against the evil.In Germany,a lot of people CAN’T believe your leadership never learns.And our government is looking to go the same way. It’s scary.

    • Joe
      September 15, 2014 at 14:45

      Bin völlig einverstanden. Wenn’s nicht klappt, dann mach’s wieder (if it doesn’t work, then do it again seems to be the crazy thinking).

    • Masud
      September 17, 2014 at 06:24

      For ‘learning’you need an independent mind. If your mind is preoccupied with the weight of AIPAC money in your pocket you tend to defer your learning for another day!

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