Maya Gebeily

Talking to Elizabeth O’Bagy

Latakia province, Syria

In the wake of the international G8 conference, NOW talks to Elizabeth O’Bagy, Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and Policy Director at the Syrian Emergency Task Force. O’Bagy has written extensive reports on the political and military developments of the Syrian opposition and has traveled into Syria throughout the uprising to meet with activists and rebel commanders. In her interview with NOW, she discusses the recent United States policy change, developments on the ground in Syria, and the growing influence of the Supreme Military Council.


NOW: What, exactly, is the policy change that we’ve just witnessed?


O’Bagy: The short of it is the fact that the United States has been forced to give a response and to take some sort of action – especially because of what happened in Qusayr and what happened in Aleppo. There’s also the idea that the Geneva negotiations are going to fail if something is not done to help out. Of course, they were getting pressure from Britain and France about acknowledging chemical weapons. In one way or another, the administration was backed into a corner, and they made this very vague announcement that they were going to be providing military assistance to the armed opposition. Since that announcement came out, there was no official statement on what that military assistance meant. A lot of people suspected it was small arms and ammunition, but the Senate sent a letter to the administration saying, “We want to know what this military assistance includes.” The administration backed down and said they’re still in the works in deciding what that means.


NOW: So was it an empty statement?


O’Bagy: My assessment is not that it’s empty, but that the United States is increasing its action on the ground inside of Syria and arming the rebels is something they’ve already been doing. Covert options that have already been under way have been about facilitation – not paying or providing, but helping to facilitate. Part of this is a recognition of covert action that has been taking place already, and I think that there will be a slight increase. But I also think it was meant as a message. It was a response to a push from [the United States’] allies, it was a response to pressure from all sides in terms of the upcoming negotiations, and it was a response to Assad’s strategy in Aleppo. It’s corresponding with some limited increase in action on the ground, but I’m not sure if it’s going to be game-changing. From talking to [Chief of Staff of the Supreme Military Council Salim] Idris and other commanders, the decision has been made, but that hasn’t translated as of yet into any concrete action. Based on what I’ve seen, they haven’t significantly increased what they’re doing. They’re talking about it, but with the United States government, anything they do takes time.


NOW: What was the decision-making process behind this apparent policy change?


O’Bagy: If you look at the timeline of the United States actions and that of the French and British – it’s an interesting comparison. It’s almost like this decision was made in the vacuum of the United States administration. They weren’t in touch with other government agencies, and they didn’t even work it out with allies.


NOW: What’s your assessment of what’s needed to be game-changing?


O’Bagy: Regardless of what happens, any sort of assistance to the opposition needs to include some sort of anti-aircraft or anti-airpower capability. Whether that’s directly giving them the anti-aircraft weapons or using our weapons to take out Assad’s air capacity – I don’t really have a preference. But at some level, if you’re talking about aiding the opposition, it has to include some sort of air defense capability.


NOW: Which you think at this point is not in the works?


O’Bagy: No.


NOW: Why is this lag still going on?


O’Bagy: It’s partly a problem that the administration itself is completely divided. You have the State Department pushing for more aggressive action, particularly Secretary of State John Kerry and others at the State Department. You have the Department of Defense that’s digging in its heels and saying no, we don’t want to get involved. You have the intelligence agencies which are doing their own covert action and pushing for leverage to do more… You have no consensus, and if you combine that with the fact that public opinion is basically 50-50, it makes it all that more difficult for the President, who is known for being rational and calculating.


NOW: Can we expect a different outcome after G8?


O’Bagy: I don’t think that the G8 meeting came to much. To be frank, I think the United States is banking on Russia having some leverage over the regime. I don’t think Russia has that much leverage over the regime. When you compare Iranian support and Russian support, it’s very clear that Assad will side with the Iranians even if the Russians pushed them. When it comes down to it, they don’t need Russia. The support that is coming in from different actors, like Hezbollah and Iran, and even South American and African countries, means they don’t need Russian support. The regime knows that, and what’s more, Russia knows that.


NOW: Does the Assad regime see the political cover that Russia is providing as unimportant?


O’Bagy: The Assad regime has shown it doesn’t really care if it’s abiding by political international laws. Even if Russia pulled that political cover, it would do very little to change conditions on the ground, and it would do very little to change Assad’s behavior.


NOW: What do you see as the trajectory in Syria in the next few months?


O’Bagy: A lot of this depends on whether this United States decision will be game-changing or not. If you look at the refugee situation and what it’s doing for regional stability – Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey. Greater United States action in inevitable, and I’m wondering how long it’ll take the administration to realize that and to take the necessary steps to follow up. Things aren’t looking too good on the ground. There are about 2,000-3,000 Hezbollah fighters in Aleppo, Iran is sending in troops. A lot of Kurdish groups are letting the regime stage operations from their areas of control, because they feel like the regime is going to win. They’d rather stand with the winner than with the loser. Morale for the opposition is very low right now, but there’s still a lot of hope that in the long run they’ll be successful. Civilian populations don’t want anything to do with anyone, they just want to stop being bombed. People are becoming disenchanted and apathetic – they’re not turning away from the opposition or the FSA, they just want to do what they can for their families to survive.


NOW: Is General Idris’s position within Syria strengthening?


O’Bagy: He’s still very well respected on the ground mostly because he’s a political leader. He has a lot of legitimacy and support. When [the Syrian Emergency Task Force] brought McCain into Syria to meet with rebel commanders, we brought in rebel commanders and told them that Idris would sit in on this meeting as the commander of the Free Syrian Army, and they agreed. They said they were under his authority. So even if he’s not in charge of the chain of command or controlling operations, he is recognized as the leader and people respect him for what he’s doing on a political level to help the Free Syrian Army. 


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Elizabeth O'Bagy pictured in Syria's Latakia province (source: Elizabeth O'Bagy).

"It’s almost like this decision was made in the vacuum of the U.S. administration…They weren’t in touch with other government agencies, and they didn’t even work it out with allies."