Syria Feature: Did Bumbling Opposition & Fumbled US Aid Open Door to Islamic State?

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Hisham Safi, who has worked in Gazientep in Turkey since 2012 for Syrian and international organizations, writes for Foreign Policy in Focus:


The takeover of large swaths of Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — and the declaration of a new caliphate within this territory — has captured the attention of every media outlet, pundit, and politician with even a passing interest in Middle East affairs.

The reason for the emergence of ISIS remains hotly contested. Certainly, the Syrian regime’s willingness to employ the worst forms of brutality has created an environment in which ISIS has thrived. Also important has been the Sunni extremism born in the ashes of Iraq. “Moderate opposition forces,” for their part, have also failed to stem the tide of radical extremism.

One factor that’s gone underreported, however, is the political vacuum within those Syrian areas (primarily in the north) that has allowed ISIS to take over so easily.

Though ISIS has existed in its current form for slightly over a year, many of the areas now under its control have been liberated from the Syrian regime for well over two.

In the intervening year, local rebel councils formed as proto-governmental bodies and were increasingly tied to the Syrian Opposition Coalition. Hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S.-financed “stabilization assistance” kept them afloat. Given the time and resources at their disposal, why were these bodies incapable of building local institutions that could withstand or repel ISIS control?

The ISIS takeover has exposed not only the military weakness of ISIS’ rival rebel groups. It has revealed the failure of the Gulf- and Western-backed Syrian opposition and its allies to institute credible systems of governance and local rule.

The failure to build such systems derives from a mutually reinforcing dependency between two poles of influence. One of these poles is Washington, DC, where policymakers with competing objectives and little local knowledge are often inadvertently undermining the very actors they hope to empower. The other pole is Gaziantep, a Turkish industrial city near the Syrian border from which most opposition activities are coordinated.

These two centers of Syrian opposition are locked in an interdependent cycle of disinformation, misplaced priorities, and even mutual recrimination. They rely on each other for legitimacy and purpose instead of reaching out to the struggling actors on the ground who are being squeezed from all directions.

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