How Western Aid Bungled Syria’s Opposition & Paved the Way for ISIS


The incompetence of some Western-backed Syrian opposition councils has created openings for more radical actors. (Photo: U.S. Mission Geneva / Flickr)

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.

Dealing with the Opposition

U.S. government employees tasked with formulating a coherent strategy on Syria have been stymied by seemingly endless complications and contradictions in their attempts to support elements of the Syrian opposition that align with U.S. interests and objectives. They have largely relied on the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition for Revolution and Opposition Forces (often shortened to Syrian Opposition Coalition, or SOC), to determine which areas require assistance and which local bodies deserve legitimacy.

The SOC has in turn focused for the most part on a singular form of U.S. assistance: military intervention. All other types of support—including humanitarian assistance, development aid, and support for local governance activities—have been devolved to the SOC’s satellite bodies in Gaziantep, such as the Local Administrative Council Support Unit, the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU), and as of late, the Syrian Interim Government.

These bodies were created with the stated goal of delivering assistance and services to struggling proto-governmental actors in Syria. But staffed with inexperienced individuals with distinct political agendas, these groups have focused instead on maximizing donor contributions into their own coffers and building their own importance and legitimacy within the SOC hierarchy.

They have each risen and fallen in a rapid succession of scandals involving mismanagement, corruption, and nepotism. The ACU, which has received over $50 million in assistance from the United States, the EU, and other Western and Gulf donors, is currently welcoming its sixth chief executive in less than two years. It has been plagued by media leaks, high-profile defections, and a strike involving over half of its Gaziantep-based staff. The Local Administrative Council Support Unit has fared little better, and though the Syrian Interim Government is still too new for scandals of this magnitude, it already shows many of the same telltale signs of corruption and mismanagement.

In their drive for funding and recognition, these organizations often focus their efforts on high-profile and novel interventions that put a premium on fashionable terminology such as “local governance support” and “peace-building.” These programs aim to promote “stabilization” with little previous knowledge of local context, capacities, or needs. Isolated in either Washington or Gaziantep, program organizers have little connection to developments on the ground and rely on second-hand information from handpicked “local partners” with an equally high stake in securing project financing.

For example, one program from the Assistance Coordination Unit aimed to provide iPads pre-loaded with educational material to children inside Syria—to compensate for the near-total collapse of educational infrastructure in the north. Another plan with tacit U.S. approval aimed to organize a cross-sectarian “mass wedding” ceremony somewhere near Damascus. Many other programs, less lavish but equally high-minded, are taking place in areas where access to basic human necessitates are scarce or non-existent. High-priced iPads and multicultural weddings are guaranteed failures when people on the ground are more concerned with access to food, clean drinking water, and safety from regime bombings.

In locations that are sufficiently supplied and secure that these types of programs can conceivably succeed, further problems arise due to insufficient knowledge of both local needs and community dynamics.

Take, for example, an attempt early last year to support a local council in a small city on the northern edge of the governorate of Raqqa. A U.S. and French campaign, under SOC guidance, to provide salaries and support to the “secular, moderate” local council produced such widespread enmity from surrounding villages that the program was soon suspended. Local populations found it unacceptable that one self-appointed city council was receiving American salaries for being “secular” while neighboring communities starved. The area became one of the first where armed extremists displaced the opposition-allied local government.

This misreading of local sensibilities is a regular occurrence in U.S. funding initiatives. A recent U.S.-run stabilization campaign aimed to create “islands of stability” in northern Syria by providing a massive influx of both humanitarian supplies and “governance assistance” to areas that successfully resisted ISIS influence. The SOC picked four cities as pilot locations to create the largest possible media response, without any consideration of where they’d find the greatest need or most capable local partners. One SOC official praised the program because “we sent so many food baskets that even rich people got them.”

As a result, in one city, the sheer quantity of imported U.S. goods raised suspicions about the local council’s right to distribute them. Enterprising locals fought for seats on the council to influence distributions in their favor and held a spontaneous election months ahead of the official election date. The old council refused to step down, and it remains unclear who the “local government” of the city is anymore.

In another city, extremists dismayed by the “American campaign against Islam” kidnapped the head of the local council and forced him out of the city, then out of the country entirely.

Yet based on the metrics used in Washington and Gaziantep, this program was considered an unqualified success. It transmitted millions of dollars worth of assistance to the Syrian opposition and received significant media attention in the process. Few people within the Washington-Gaziantep echo chamber had the information to point out the problems that came with it. Worse, the United States is currently in the process of expanding the program significantly, thus compounding the errors.

Finding the Right Partners

Assistance programs are often geared at building the legitimacy of SOC-affiliated and Gaziantep-based Syrian opposition bodies by demonstrating to local communities that these bodies are capable of delivering effective services. However, the effective delivery of even the most basic services is predicated on the existence of a capable and legitimate body who can implement them appropriately.

But the bodies selected by the United States are too busy courting U.S. favor to have the necessary local credibility and know-how. So Western policy gets caught in an endless loop of its own creation.

Most Syrians—and practically all Americans—are unaware of even the existence of the Syrian Interim Government, the current beneficiary of much Western largesse and the purported representative of the interests of the Syrian people. Within the corridors of their Gaziantep-based ministries, the departments and factions of the Interim Government compete for funding and influence, and jockey for position and control.

They fight over management of U.S. funds or oversight of British programs. They produce glossy reports on the expected future outputs of large-scale, multimillion- dollar programs to revitalize wheat farming or to revamp Syria’s educational curriculum. The Ministries of Finance and Relief are currently engaged in a heated tug-of-war over the “islands of stability” campaign mentioned above. Each hopes to gain total control over program funding with no representation whatsoever from the other.

None of the ministries has yet to produce tangible impact on the ground. The Syrian population likely has little faith that the Interim Government has the ability to mitigate the horrors that they have endured over the past three years.

Washington and Gaziantep, too focused on the needs and expectations of each other, have lost sight of the populations they both ostensibly aim to support. This tunnel vision has resulted in a significant deterioration, rather than promotion, of the legitimacy of the opposition bodies that Washington had initially hoped to mold into leaders and allies.

Looking Ahead

But all is not yet lost.

Dozens of local groups—and even some national ones—currently have the credibility to lead and the capacity to perform. This credibility was hard-won through community-based initiatives that took place far from the gaze or support of U.S. donors or their Gaziantep counterparts. Many have been driven out by extremists, but those that remain should be identified, supported, and most importantly, listened to.

These community-based and community-driven initiatives form the backbone of any credible local governance, and a credible Syrian interlocutor should be able to harness these potentialities to create real positive change. It is here—and not in the funding or training of militias with little local knowledge and unknown motivations—that the bulwark against radical extremism will be strongest.

In Raqqa, the heart of the new Islamic State, a community group called Haqquna (“Our Right”) mobilized community members to embrace ideals of pluralism, representative democracy, and secularism.

These ideas were not borne from meetings with U.S. donors or even attendance at U.S.-funded trainings or seminars; Haqquna never received a penny from the United States or other Western governments. The group regularly and publicly protested the presence of Jabhat Al-Nusra (once the most extreme Islamists in Syria before the arrival of ISIS). And when the U.S.-backed local council was seen to be kowtowing to foreign interests over those of their own constituents, Haqquna protested the council as well.

Haqquna enjoyed widespread popular support but was attacked by hardline Islamists, the Assad regime, and occasionally by the local councils as well. Several months ago, the organization collapsed under the violence and pressure, and its members went into exile.

Things might have turned out differently if a national Syrian body, one that properly represented the interests of the populace, was willing to identify, support, and devolve authority to local groups such as these. These local civil society groups are already operating on the front lines of Syria’s most troubled locations, organizing assistance deliveries and negotiating temporary ceasefires between opposing sides. Their efforts are not only effective, but are also widely considered to be locally sourced and legitimate, and as a consequence, sustainable.

Organizations like Haqquna cannot survive alone. Too often they’re crowded out by bodies with deeper pockets but shallower politics, acting on behalf of “international interests” instead of those of the Syrian people. With this model replicated across all of what was once “liberated” Syria, it’s no wonder that the mantle of governance fell to groups offering a different vision.

To reverse the tide and regain the spirit of those who first took to the streets in 2011, it’s time to leave behind the bubbles of Washington and Gaziantep and take a fresh look at what is happening on the ground in Syria.

Hisham Safi, a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, has spent the last two years in Gaziantep working for Syrian and international organizations.

  • Jocelyn Mini

    The author suffers from the same “high-minded” foolishness he decries. He tells us that local people despise and distrust any groups that receive western support; that the majority of people oppose secularism, and that Islamist corruption and violence has thus far trumped every well-intentioned western effort. Then he tells us to keep trying.

    There is no answer to the Arab Muslim world’s hellish combination of strong arm dictators and religious fanatics. The claim of “If only the West would support different pet projects, peace would reign,” is a ludicrous conclusion that all his preceding examples prove the lie of.

    There is no winning option. One can only laugh at the incessant hand-wringing that keeps trying to lay blame at Western doors for the blood-crazed ideologies of others, or pretend the West can wave a magic wand and create democracy where men with guns and beards want something else.

    • Meissa lee

      It is frightening to see commentary such as the above on a foreign policy forum. Whereas the author tries to resolve obvious failures with our foreign policy and offers possible solutions to make it more effective, the author of the comment above perfectly demonstrates the misplaced egoism and infantile declarations of the misinformed and the prejudiced. At no point does the author blame the west for the creation of any ideology, nor does he state that local groups inherently distrust any group receiving foreign aid; what he does state is that the methodology and analysis used to identify aid targets is flawed and is thereby undermining more effective local efforts. Comments such as the above should be deleted as the egoistic and prejudiced childish rants that they are.

      • Jace Marani

        Don’t be frightened, hon. I am just an average American in a job far from Washington. I come in peace and pose no threat to you.
        It is okay if you disagree with me – I am not out to convert the world. I am merely expressing an opinion. But I am confused about the “misplaced egoism” you read in my comment. Perhaps you misunderstood me.
        I suggest you look at commentaries and political opinions regarding, say, the Arab world. Or the Muslim world. Or the world at large. Here is what you will see:
        –70 percent of Americans will insist: “America is to blame for the world’s ills, because it has supported dictators!”
        –70 percent of Americans will insist: “American is to blame for the world’s ills, because it has toppled dictators!”
        –70 percent of the local folks involved in any conflict will insist, “America is to blame because they meddle in our affairs, like the damn imperialists they are!”
        –70 percent of the local folks involved will at the same time insist, “America is to blame for not supporting our brave Revolution! How dare they betray us?”
        (Yes – I am aware that the numbers don’t add up. Thanks for noticing.)
        What all 140 percent of these people have in common, is the wacky believe that “America controls it all.” That is egoTism, if you please.
        The fallacy of American control is propelled mostly by partisan nonsense. Whenever anything goes right in the world, half of our politicians claim they brought it about with their brilliant political games. Whenever anything goes wrong in the world, half our politicians claimed that the boys and girls across the aisle caused the fiasco by calling the wrong plays at the critical moment. In actuality, foreign policy is a collection of guesses, hopes, and blind luck, in which the best laid plans o’ mice and men…. well, you know how it goes.
        I certainly wish the people of the middle east a secular democracy in which women, men, Muslims and non-Muslims all live under the same law, and corruption is minimal, and people can live, pray, work, marry, and grow old as they please. When you and the author bring that about, you can write me and say, “See, we did it!” – and i’ll send you a thank you card. Otherwise, fear not: you can keep blaming the duds in DC for screwing up your brilliant, failsafe plans to create world peace.

      • leitskev

        Jocelyn got it right. Two things make it difficult for you to see it, things which give evidence to the fact that your instincts are noble, but which nevertheless create blind spots for you. The first is you have a predisposition toward action. You see a problem, and you are inclined to attempt a fix. An admirable characteristic, but one which creates a prejudice in favor of intervention.

        The second thing that gets in your way is a fear of being associated with what you consider simple bigotry. I suspect this fear has deep psychological roots and is centered around your own ego. You want to think of yourself as associated with the “cultured” people who refrain from “judging” other cultures. This allows your ego to bathe in the warm glow of superiority over those less refined and quick to judge. Feels nice, doesn’t it? That’s the clue to your underlying motivation.

        Nevertheless, Jocelyn’s logic is hard to fault. The article explains at length how our attempts to meddle in the conflict have not only failed, but have ironically further enabled the extremists. This leaves two options: quit the meddling, or do a better job of it.

        But is it the most logical opinion to conclude we might be able to do a better job of it? Is there any reason to think we might have people better capable of the job? Who are these people? The article does not cite them. Certainly the most reasonable conclusion…which Jocelyn made…is that we need to stop meddling. Enough harm has been done.

        Lastly, I want a word on Meissa’s final comments asking for Jocelyn’s to be deleted…and thus giving away conclusively her Left Wing slant. For only the Left Wing seeks so fervently to silence dissent. And the more on target the dissent is(such as Jocelyn’s) the more fervently and reliably does the modern liberal seek to silence it.

        Meissa accuses J of being “egoistic” and “childish”. And yet those very aspects are on stark display in M’s approach. The complete inability to overrule a disposition(toward intervention) in the face of decisive logic(intervention has done more harm than good and should be abandoned) is the very characteristic of childish ways. Likewise, a philosophy which is rooted in the need to establish one’s own superiority, to the point where it blinds one to what should be plainly reasonable, is evidence of powerful egoism at work…though M is blind to it.

        • Jocelyn Mini

          Thanks for the support. I wasn’t going to touch the name-calling and pro-censorship stuff :).

          For a long time I have thought that BOTH the liberal left (of which I am a graduate) and the Christian right are basically dedicated to helping members come together in mobs to puff up their sense of moral superiority. Whether the battle cry is “You are prejudiced but I, I am tolerant and highly evolved” or “you are a Godless baby-killing sodomite but I, I piously embrace the Culture of Life,” the purpose is the same: to make the claimant feel virtuous and self-congratulatory.

          I married a Sunni Muslim from the Latakia region and was involved in the middle-American Muslim private school my kids attended, so in addition to being an avid watcher of US foreign policy, I’ve had a pretty intimate exposure to “what They want” and “how They think.”. (And this is a pretty educated, American slice of They, who have CHOSEN to live in a secular democracy.). And my best advice is: let’s defend ourselves, offer humanitarian aid where appropriate, and leave Them to their evolutionary path.

          • leitskev

            Thank you for sharing. And your comparing the liberal crusader to the Christian missionary is spot on. I live in Massachusetts where the Puritans morphed into arrogant blue bloods and then into elitist liberals who have maintained their puritanical impulse, one where God has been replaced by simple bumper sticker slogans.

            As far as the Middle East, I mostly agree with you, though I would never take any options off the table. For example, I don’t see anything good out of allowing ISIS to establish a reign of terror and a base for terror across a huge swath. And when I see innocent people people being slaughtered and little girls enslaved, I at least want to consider options of doing something.

            And I also agree with your reference to their “evolutionary path”. Others will object to that as being bigoted, but the simple fact is that at the moment they are not culturally ripe for democratic institutions or for building a modern civilization that respects the rights of minorities and individuals. We can’t force that, either. They have a different value system and it has to change, if it’s going to, according to its own evolutionary path. My saying that will cause some to accuse me of being judgmental or prejudiced, but my purpose is not to raise one culture above others. I simply will not surrender the right to make value judgments in the face of widespread genital mutilation, honor killings, enslaving, jihads, and forced marriage…not to mention terrorism, which that culture almost has a monopoly on. For two centuries after its founding, Islam produced a cultural flourishing while Europe was in a dark age. When the Islamic world is ready to return to that, I’ll be more than happy to sing its praises.

          • Jace Marani

            OMG, you are my ideological twin separated at birth! Every word you wrote, I could have written – every qualm of conscience and every steadfast ideal you will not compromise on. Perhaps it’s because I have the stamp of Massachusetts on me, too. I am a product of the very excellent – and loony-tune liberal – Newton public school system.
            There is a question burning in me, and I think you might have the answer. Please tell me this, if you can:
            I am a person who wants a world of equal protection and opportunity for all. I want to see all the world’s people safe as I am safe, protected by a constitution like the one that protects me. I want separation of religion and state all over the world; I want no more girls bought and sold and killed and coerced to satisfy men’s honor. I want no more Jew-hatred and no idiotic religious supremacy and no activists rotting in prison for challenging theocracies and dictatorships. I believe every citizen should be subject to the same laws. I believe in secular democracy.
            So in elections, who should I vote for? The left, as I always have? Even though they screech their hatred and contempt of western society – the most egalitarian and minority-protecting society existing in the world today – and want me to show “tolerance” for non-western cultures in which the weak and powerless (female, minority, poor, different) are abused and lynched and tyrannized? Even though they are such a mindless mob that they actually think the government of Gaza is “morally good” whereas that of Israel is “morally bad”? How can I support such people?
            Or should I start backing the right, as I never have before? Even though many of them speak like backward chauvinists of another era, and want to shove their religion and their poor logic down all our throats and up our orifices? How can I support them, either?
            Please tell me which team I’m supposed to play on. Because I have pretty much given up believing that anyone speaks for sanity, or for me.

          • leitskev

            Hi Jace. This is how I would answer your question. I am socially liberal. I respect conservative values in most cases, but value should not be the business of government. So why do I vote conservative? The biggest single threat to liberty…as well as to economic opportunity…is the ever-expanding government. It expands not only in size but in reach. This is becoming a country where you can no longer dream of starting your own business, or farming your own farm. If you own a business, the government has its corrupt nose in everything you do. And people have to understand that power = corruption. So the more powerful the government, the more opportunity for corruption. That’s why, while there will always be corruption in any party, corruption is at the heart of everything the Democrat party does. It’s also why the Democrat Party has become the party of big business…because big business uses government to destroy its competition(smaller businesses) with regulation. And the Dems are the party of regulation. This is why Wall Street gave double to Obama in 2008 what it gave McCain, and gave more than it gave to Romney. Republicans do things I don’t like, but their small government platform limits the damage. The tea parties limit it even more, and despite liberal propaganda, the tea parties are basically just about small government.

            But this is a foreign policy arena, so let’s return to that. First of all, I agree with you that the world will be better off with the spread of those values. But how much of a role can or should we play in it? I don’t know, to be honest. Germany and Japan were totalitarian societies in 1945. Look at them now. This is what the neo-cons wanted in the invasion of Iraq. The thinking was that if we could repeat what their fathers had done in WWII, and make Iraq a modern, human rights respecting democracy, these values might spread throughout the middle east.

            It was the only possible solution, because as long as the middle east is backward and barbaric, it will never enjoy the fruits of modern civilization. That sounds chauvinistic, but I’m not afraid to make that judgment when I see forced genital castration of women and a culture which has produced nothing but misery for a almost a thousand years(after a couple of centuries of flourishing). So the neocons had the only plan that had a chance. But we now know it was doomed to failure. Japan and Germany were very different situations. Japan is an island, so there was no problem with outside interference. Japan had already made a great effort to transform itself into a modern power through industrialization and through changing its culture. And the Japanese were a unified nationality. Germany was one of the great cultures of the world, so inevitably it would rise from the ashes, but it’s still incredible that centuries of authoritarianism have been transformed into democratic values there. the specter of the Soviet Union helped, fear keeping them focused on adopting the values of the West. And as with Japan, they are a unified nationality.
            Iraq never had a chance and the neocons were unwise to not understand it. Iraq is not a unified nationality, it is three tribal powers, Kurd, Sunni and Shia. And the essential Shia/Sunni battle that’s been raging for centuries was destined to be waged in proxy there by outside powers: Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey. Had Obama left troops there, we would not be in this ISIS predicament, but I doubt Iraq would be on the way to becoming the next successful transplanting of western values. The simple fact is that these values are at odds with Islam. We’re not supposed to say that because it sounds bigoted, but it is undeniable. There is a level of democracy in Turkey, but only because its founder, Kamal Attaturk, established secular government and tried to push a secular society for more than fifty years. But Turkey is slowly sinking back into Islamic despotism…and that’s the bright spot!

            So what do we do? I don’t know, you tell me. I’m open to be influenced. I have a hard time watching innocent children abducted and slaughtered and raped and sold off as sex slaves. So I’m inclined to use the military in a limited way. Not to occupy countries, but to take out bad guys. The guys I know in the military are willing. They too are moved by the images they see. Contrary to what the liberals in Newton teach, most people in the American military are literally the best people you will ever meet. People that want to do the right thing. This was proven over and over in Iraq.
            As for the Left…don’t ever expect logical consistency from them. You see a car in Newton with all those bumper stickers on it…that’s the liberal approach: all kinds of disconnected and often contradictory policy principles that sound good on a bumper sticker.

            President Obama has difficult choices. But he was warned on ISIS for over a year, and he refused to take action or even admit the problem, calling them the Jayvees. His first foreign policy initiative was a “reset” with Russia…which if he understood anything about culture he would know that most countries around the world would only see this as weakness…which is what the Russians did, and acted accordingly.

            So how do we change the world? We can’t. But we can at least be willing to be the good guys where we can. If that means bringing some ass kicking places like northern Africa where Muslims abduct little girls, let’s do it. If it means we need to kick some ISIS ass in Iraq so that innocent families can escape, let’s do it.

            One more thing…the lesson of Egypt(and Algeria). We have democracy here in America because the founding fathers saw that as the best way to protect our individual rights. Same as in Europe. But in Islamic lands, democracy is the biggest threat to those rights. Egypt had democracy a couple years ago, an it elected the Brotherhood, which promised to establish sharia. The first thing that happened under the Brotherhood was oppression. So the military was forced to take over. Now they are back to dictatorship, but the rights of everyone, especially minorities, is actually safer.

            I am not suggesting we overturn legitimate democracies should they arise. But we should continue the policy of the last fifty years of working with cooperative and friendly dictators. We should not be involved with overturning governments unless they are truly dangerous.

            So to sum up(sorry got long winded, had a few beers!): we should be willing to be active in local instances were we can help, such as when innocents are being slaughtered; but we should not get involved in wide wars, and we should not force change on a culture which is just not ripe for it. That stinks, but we didn’t make the world the way it is, we’re just stuck with it.

  • Free@last

    The author missed the forest from the trees. The claims that “hundred of milions” of Western Assistance to Syrian moderates are pure lies. No meaningful assistance were provided to moderates. period. All while billions were spend by Iran and Russia to back up Assad. On the flip side, billions of resources from unknown sources fueled extremists under the watchful eyes of the CIA. Fir the Syruan people, the following simple fact is indisputable: You will be severely punished by friends and foes alike if you are a proponent of democracy and western values.
    Obama administration talks about billions of humanitarian assistance to Syria. What they don’t say is that most of that money were entrusted to Assad so he deliver these assistance to civilians he is about to murder. The big lie continues, It either MURDEROUS dictators or barbaric extremists. It is a lie continously fed by Western media to justify the genocide.

  • ronj1955

    what the author considers a misreading of local sensibilities is actually more like an attempted mposition of western imperial values

  • Sam

    Very interesting.

  • Sam

    Very Interesting