President Obama’s eve of 9/11 speech in which he declared “war” on the Islamic State, formerly ISIS, contained a commitment to arm and support so-called moderate Syrian opposition to assist in “degrading and ultimately destroying” the Salafist Jihadist self-declared Caliphate. He may have been referring to the Free Syrian Army. But which Free Syrian Army (FSA)? One group has been headed by American –Syrian members of the Muslim Brotherhood who have dominated the Syrian National Council like Louay Safi with access to the White House. Moreover, as we have learned tragically, it is this Free Syrian Army, with a Supreme Military Command in Erdogan’s Ankara, that purportedly sold American Journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were barbarously murdered by ISIS. Those graphic beheadings deliberately conveyed on videos aroused American public opinion demanding action that prompted Obama’s televized address to the nation. This weekend, ISIS revealed another grisly beheading of British aid worker David Haines. In August 2014, President Obama had dismissed the moderate Syrian opposition as a group of “bankers, doctors and pharmacists.”
Dramatically, one leader of the “moderate” Syrian opposition Dr. Kamal al-Labwani, a veteran Syrian secular opponent of the Assad regime, surfaced in Israel this weekend at the annual International Counter Terrorism (ICT) Conference in Herzliya. You may watch live feed of the ICT conference, here. According to the Times of Israel , who interviewed him, he is in Israel for 10-days on what Labwani described as “academic” and “exploratory” and stated he was prepared to meet with Israeli policymakers “whenever they want.”
Labwani’s attendance at the ICT conference may reflect the outreach by the other FSA led by the Syrian Opposition Coalition headquartered near embattled Aleppo composed of ex-Assad military including Alawites, Christians and Sunni tribal leaders currently battling ISIS inside Syria. My colleague Ilana Freedman estimates through her sources that there could be as many as 50,000 Syrian opposition fighters in this “other FSA.”
In our September NER, article, Did Assad and Maliki Facilitate the Rise of the Islamic State? An Interview with M. Zuhdi Jasser and Sherkoh Abbas, we noted this exchange with Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser:
Gordon: Syria lies on Israel’s Golan frontier. What has Israel contributed to the alleviation of the plight of Syrians and has there been any relationship between the democratic opposition in Syria and the Israeli government?
Jasser: I think that’s such an important question and the Syrian National Council, they are still slowly coming around to that view. I would ask people to look at some of the writings and comments of Dr. Kamal al-Labwani who in the past few months has come out and said we should have visited more closely with Israel and guaranteed them security on the Golan as being a mechanism by which we could actually protect some of the more moderates in Syria. He’s realizing that there was no hope for the Syrian National Council (SNC) because it was being protected by Turkey and Qatar. The Islamists, including many American Syrians including Louay Safi and others who went back to run the SNC from an Islamist Brotherhood perspective. Labwani is awakening to the fact that the West is his friend, Israel is at the head of that coalition and the Golan is part of that.
Dr. Labwani has spent ten years in and out of Assad regime jails for his activism in support of a secular and democratic Syria. Labwani lives in exile in Sweden. Adam Pechter in a Fall 2007, Middle East Quarterly profile noted Labwani’s treatment by the regime of Bashar Assad for his dissidence:
Labwani has long been a thorn in the Syrian regime’s side. He angered officials with his advocacy for human rights and fundamental freedoms and has been a consistent advocate for reform. On August 28, 2002, a Syrian court sentenced him to three years in prison for his activities promoting reform during the “Damascus Spring,” the short period in 2000-01 in which the Syrian regime appeared to tolerate more open political criticism. Rather than cow Labwani, his previous imprisonment emboldened him. Following his September 2004 release from prison he founded the Democratic Liberal Gathering which calls for political and free-market reforms and equality for women.
On May 10, 2007, one week after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Syria’s foreign minister Walid al-Moallem for the highest-level bilateral talks between the two governments in more than two year a Syrian court sentenced Kamal al-Labwani to twelve years imprisonment and hard labor. That the harsh sentence coincides with Washington’s decision to reengage Damascus suggests that Assad believes the White House no longer holds it accountable for its persecution of nonviolent dissidents.
The Times of Israel report discussed Labwani views critical of Obama’s new ISIS strategy at the ICT Counter Terrorism conference, “Syrian opposition leader skeptical of US plan to arm rebels”. Labwani commented:
“Currently, the aid could fall into the wrong hands in the absence of good management and oversight,” Labwani said. “Real authority on the ground requires investment in organization before the aid is even sent.”
“We cannot fight terror with terror or crime with crime,” he said. “We must combat all the criminals, be they the regime or the terrorists from the Islamic State and the other gangs. You can’t have the Syrian people choose between a criminal named Bashar Assad or a terrorist named [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi.”
“We must reconstruct a new leadership connected to the people,” he said. “This would also require a no-fly zone. It would be pointless to create a system inside and have the [Assad] regime destroy it.”
“They [the Americans] have relied on failed regimes. They gave a portfolio to Qatar and a portfolio to Saudi Arabia … but it’s the Syrians who must take responsibility and run their own lives. We could, for instance, form a base in liberated areas in the north and the south and establish good relations with people. But to receive orders from a Saudi sheikh or a Qatari sheikh or from foreign intelligence agencies? That won’t work.”
“How can we turn this chaos into order? We need to build an authority on the ground. This requires a budget, an economy, institutions, reconstruction, and protection. Weapons aren’t enough.”
An op-ed in the Weekend Edition of the Wall Street Journal resonated Dr. Labwani’s comments, Obama Needs the Free Syrian Army to Defeat the Islamic State. The authors are Oubai Shahbandar and Michael Pregent. Mr. Shahbandar, a former Pentagon analyst, is an adviser to the Syrian Opposition Coalition of which Dr. Labwani is a member. Mr. Pregent is an adjunct lecturer at National Defense University and a former U.S. Army intelligence officer. They noted:
Until recently, the U.S. intelligence community had a grim assessment of the prospects of working with the Free Syrian Army opposition forces in an anti-ISIS campaign. Issues with command and control and unclear links to a political framework were often cited as reasons for hesitation to invest in the type of military partnership the U.S. has with Kurdish security forces in Iraq in fighting ISIS.
Nonetheless, the success of President Obama’s strategy in Syria clearly depends on the ability of the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Free Syrian Army to fight ISIS. The good news is the FSA has established a command center outside the village of Marea in the strategically important province of Aleppo to direct and manage the battle against ISIS in northern Syria. And in August the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council, an alliance between FSA and other rebel factions, was formed to increase coordination and unity.
How can these rebel groups help the U.S. assault on ISIS? Even with the world’s most advanced intelligence reconnaissance and surveillance platforms, the U.S. military still needs “eyes on the ground” to round out the intelligence picture of ISIS’s capabilities, locations and vulnerabilities. Establishing an advice and assist relationship with the Free Syrian Army and tribal networks in eastern Syria would pay dividends for military planning. In late July, the Shaitat tribe in eastern Syria rose up against ISIS and drove them from the villages of Abu Hamam, Kashkiyeh and Ghranijup. The Shaitat have in turn faced brutal recriminations, with ISIS fighters capturing and slaughtering some 700 tribal members.
In Iraq, Kurdish Peshmerga forces have proved to be the anvil to the hammer of U.S. airstrikes, denying ISIS strategic terrain and recapturing lost territory. ISIS suffered its first strategic setback in Iraq in August with the loss of the Mosul Dam —an important blow to its image among its fracturing Sunni support base. Iraqi Sunni tribes, whose tribal confederation crosses over into eastern Syria, are also joining the fight against ISIS. In Syria, airstrikes should enable the FSA and allied tribes to retake the country’s eastern oil fields, which are vital to sustaining and funding ISIS operations.
Perhaps, Dr. Labwani’s visit to the ICT conference in Israel may also discuss possible mutual interests regarding covert support of the FSA military command and indigenous Sunni tribes’ opposition to ISIS and the Assad regime. If the case, one can only hope that might include linking up with Syrian Kurdish resistance forces, despite earlier differences.
Watch this March 31, 2014, MEMRI video interview with Dr. Labwani that may have prompted his current visit to the IDC conference in Herzliya.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on the New English Review. The featured image is of Syrian Opposition Leader, Dr. Kamal Labani on right at ICT Conference Herzliya Israel 9-11-14. Source Moti Kahana, Times of Israel.