Internal splintering of Syrian rebel groups leads U.S., U.K. to suspend aid

The U.S. and Britain cut off non-lethal aid to Western-backed rebels in Northern Syria after Islamist insurgents seized weapons warehouses in near the Turkish border. Gwen Ifill gets reaction to the decision from Syrian opposition activist Murhaf Jouejati and Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma.


Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

GWEN IFILL: Now to Syria.

In the past week, we have taken a close look at the weakening of the Free Syrian Army and the rise of Islamist fighters in the war-torn country.Now, as the U.S. and Britain pull back, there are serious questions about whether moderates fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad can survive.

DEFENSE SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: What has occurred here in the last couple of days is a clear reflection on how complicated and dangerous this situation is and how unpredictable it is.

GWEN IFILL: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel summed things up today after the U.S. and Britain cut off non-lethal aid to Western-backed rebels in Northern Syria.

The action came after other insurgents from the Islamic Front seized weapons warehouses in Bab al-Hawa, near the Turkish border.Hagel said U.S. military gear, from supply trucks to communications equipment, must not fall into the Islamists' hands.

CHUCK HAGEL: This is a problem, I mean, what has occurred here, a big problem.And we're going to have to work through it and manage through it with General Idris and moderate opposition.

GWEN IFILL: General Salim Idris commands the Western-backed rebels, but he's been forced to flee Syria in recent days.Today, though, his supporters insisted he invited the Islamic Front to intervene and take the warehouses back from an al Qaeda group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.

KHALED SALEH, Syrian National Coalition:The Islamic Front came in, managed to push ISIS back.And they're waiting for General Salim Idris' group to come and take control over the warehouses.

GWEN IFILL: The internal splintering among rebel groups has made it increasingly difficult for the U.S. to find a reliable partner to force Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from office.

Arizona Senator John McCain said today the Obama administration is to blame, saying in a statement: "This catastrophe is a direct result of the absence of American leadership.The deteriorating conflict in Syria continues to grow into a threat to U.S. national security interests, and, unfortunately, the administration has no realistic policy to address it."

The latest developments come just one month before a Syria peace conference is scheduled to begin in Switzerland.

So, might evidence of a weakened opposition derail those Geneva peace talks?

For that, I'm joined by Murhaf Jouejati, an opposition activist and professor of Middle East studies at the National Defense University in Washington.He was born in Syria.And Joshua Landis, director of the center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and editor of the website Syria Comment.

Mr. Jouejati, was the administration, was the Obama administration wise to pull back?

MURHAF JOUEJATI, National Defense University:It wasn't wise to pull back.It should reverse the trend that has been taking place for some weeks now, which is the weakening of the moderate rebel forces and the rise of the extremist forces.

And the way to reverse this is to support the moderate forces.These are the allies of the United States.These are the democratic forces calling for democracy in Syria.So, again, it is an unfortunate decision that was taken by the United States, although it may be understandable, given the nervousness of the U.S. with regard to the extremist groups in Syria.

GWEN IFILL: With the splintering within the opposition forces themselves?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: Correct.

The opposition forces are moderate to less moderate to radical.And it is the moderate forces we should concentrate on and support in view of democratizing Syria.

GWEN IFILL: Joshua Landis, what is your take on the administration's action?

JOSHUA LANDIS, University of Oklahoma:Well, I think it is vindication of Obama's policy of careful -- trying to stay out of Syria, because there are now many factions in Syria fighting.

And we see this as not just a war between Assad and rebels.It's between Islamists, al-Qaida, some moderate factions.The Kurds have the northeast, known the northeast.If the United States picks -- tries to pick a side and make a winner, it is going to have to fight many different -- on many different fronts.

This is something the American public doesn't have the energy or the money to spend on.And most of your show here is about budget problems in Washington.This is a very expensive and difficult endeavor.America's not -- and cannot do it.

GWEN IFILL: Well, pardon me, but you heard what John McCain said, which is the problem here is that the United States didn't bring enough to this fight.

JOSHUA LANDIS: You know, this is what -- this is -- look it, we went into Iraq, and in three weeks we destroyed Saddam Hussein, criminalized the Baath Party, got rid of the army, and handed over the country to the rebels that we were supporting, or the opposition we were supporting, without them having to fire a shot.

And what happened?Over the next three years, the country split into civil war.Everybody radicalized.And the American army was strained to its very core trying to hold that country together.We spent over $3 trillion to do it.And it's barely -- 6,000, 7,000 people were killed in political violence in Iraq last year.

You know, everybody told us Iraq would be a cakewalk, people would kiss us.And, you know, the pundits got Iraq totally wrong.And I think they're getting Syria wrong too.Syria was going to lead towards Islamism, just the way every other Arab spring country has led toward Islamism.It is the dominant...

(CROSSTALK)

GWEN IFILL: I have to let Professor Jouejati respond to that.

MURHAF JOUEJATI: If the United States doesn't support the moderates in Syria, yes, the Islamists will gain the upper hand.And it will be a battle between a dictator who has killed 126,000 of his people, who has gassed his people.

It will be a battle between him and the extremists.At any rate, the United States, if it doesn't support the democratic forces in Syria, the moderate forces, that means it is going to have to intervene later on, but a time not of its choosing.

GWEN IFILL: Do you assume that, in pulling back this non-lethal aid -- there is still humanitarian aid that is going on.Apparently, there is a small covert arms sales or arms transit that is still going on.Do you interpret that as the first step to the United States getting out of the way and letting Assad stay in office?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: Well, look, that would be very dangerous for a United States who has been calling for the ouster of Assad, for him to go, that has drawn red lines because of the chemical weapons he has used to suddenly reverse its position.

It would tarnish the credibility and the reputation of the United States.The United States has national security interests to advance here, its own.And it can only do that through the democratic forces in Syria, not allowing Assad to rule anymore.He is a dictator that has killed 126,000 of his people.

He is a man who has made seven million refugees.And in proportion to the United States, that is 100 million American refugees.

GWEN IFILL: So, Joshua Landis, why -- why would this -- why -- first of all, do you think that this first step is the first of several -- of a permanent step away of U.S. involvement, leaving Assad in power?And what is the other option for the U.S. here?

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, you know, most people in Washington, most of the official Washingtonians, are saying that Assad has to step down, but there's going to be a political solution.

And yet no one has a plan to make Assad step down.He says he's not going to do it.Who is going to make him step down?Nobody is going to do it, unless it's going to be American Marines.And I don't think that Obama -- everything points that Obama is not going to do that.

So, if you are going to get a cease-fire in a country, you are going to have to have people from Assad's side and people from the rebel side sitting down together.And that's going to require at Geneva that the Saudis and the Iranians, the Russians and the Americans and the Turks all come together and decide that they're not going to fund their factions and begin to come up with some kind of road map that they can see for how they can limit the damage, stop arms from flowing in, stop money from flowing in on both sides, both to Assad, to the rebels.

And they're going have to be cease-fire lines.And what that ultimately means, I don't know.But it's to the going to be democrats winning in Syria.They have shown themselves to be way too weak.And there is going to be a messy process that, hopefully, over time one can develop towards a happier constitutional Syria.But, in the meantime, we're going to have to deal with a lot less than that.

GWEN IFILL: Joshua Landis, Professor Jouejati, just said this has to be worked out at the negotiating table in Geneva.

Does today's withdrawal , not only of the U.S., but British involvement, does that make that more or less likely to happen?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: Less likely.

It sends the wrong message to everybody.It sends the message to Assad that the Americans are weak and are not going to supply their allies.It sends a message to the radicals of the same thing.And it sends a message to the democratic forces that the United States is not going to be the ally we thought it was in pursuing democracy.

What is going to happen in Geneva is that Assad, given today and today's decision, is going to make even less concessions that he would have had otherwise.

GWEN IFILL: Murhaf Jouejati and Joshua Landis, thank you both very much.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Thank you.