By David Ignatius
RABAH AL-SARHAN, Jordan — The Syrian border is just a few miles north of this processing station for refugees. Syrian rebel commanders had invited me to travel with them inside their country, entering through a crossing point near here, but the Jordanian government emphatically said no. So this account is based on interviews with Syrians I met in Jordan or talked with inside Syria by phone.
My Syrian contacts described a bitter stalemate: President Bashar al-Assad holds on to power, but he has lost control of major parts of the country. The rebels fight bravely, but they lack the organization and heavy weapons to protect the areas they have liberated. Meanwhile, al-Qaida extremists fester in the shadows. The opposition remains so fragmented that some rebels frankly admit they aren’t ready to govern, even if Assad should fall.
“We still need to find a leader,” concedes one rebel commander. “We are headless inside the country.”
Rebel fighters spoke honestly about three key issues: First, their military wing remains diffuse and disorganized; the southern front has more than 55 brigades but lacks a unified command-and-control structure. Second, Muslim extremists are gaining a foothold in the south, just as they did two years ago in northern Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra, linked with al-Qaida, has set up checkpoints on some roads just north of the Jordan border. Finally, Assad’s forces have regained control of many Damascus suburbs, essentially by starving the residents into submission.
With Ahmad al-Jarba, the political leader of the Syrian opposition, visiting Washington next week for meetings with U.S. officials, it’s reality-check time. The current American approach is contributing to the grinding, slow-motion death of Syria. What should be changed? There are two obvious possibilities, but each has problems:
— Strengthen the opposition. Saudi Arabia wants the U.S. to expand its covert training program to create a real rebel army, armed with anti-aircraft missiles. Such a force could hold off Assad and protect rebel-held areas. But the rebels would be fighting for a draw and an eventual political settlement. They are too fractured politically to triumph and rule.
— Negotiate with Assad to create a successor regime. Some in Jordan and Washington argue that for the sake of stability, the friends of Syria should open back-channel contacts with Assad. “We might have to eat some hard crow,” argued Ryan Crocker, the widely respected former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Iraq, at a think-tank gathering in Washington Thursday. “As bad as the regime is, there is something worse — which is extreme elements of the opposition.”
But cutting a deal with Assad’s regime strikes me as an unrealistic strategy, in addition to being an amoral one: Assad has so angered many Syrian citizens that he has probably lost any chance of rebuilding a unified country. As one U.S. official notes, “It’s like asking Humpty Dumpty to put himself back together.”
The U.S. needs a strategy for a long fight. If the goal is an eventual political balance in Syria, the opposition will need training and military assistance to stabilize the areas it controls. In return for help, the moderate opposition will have to break with al-Nusra, just as it has done with the even more extreme group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
A fighter from the Daraa region explains the simple reason his forces cooperate with al-Nusra: “They have a lot of support.” This opportunistic alliance has to change; otherwise, the moderates are doomed.
In framing a sustainable strategy, the Obama administration should listen to Jordanians when they complain that they have a powder keg next door. Jordan is nominally part of a covert plan to assist the rebels made by intelligence chiefs from the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other key countries. But this pact masks a deep uneasiness.
Even some rebel leaders know Jordan’s tight border is better than Turkey’s porous frontier. “The smugglers and kidnappers can’t operate along the Jordan border. The extremists can’t enter. We feel safe at our backs,” says a fighter with the Yarmouk Brigade in southern Syria.
The victims in this war are paying a terrible cost. A man shows you the wounds of torture — the stump of a finger chopped off and a red welt of stitch marks where his leg was broken. A delicately beautiful young woman walks with a severe limp because her leg was snapped by prison guards.
Syria policy should be made with a cool head, but it can’t be heartless to such human suffering.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.