Saving Syria: An Interview with Kyle Orton

The issue of Syria, it seems, will be with us for a long time to come. With analysts and even American officials predicting that Bashar al-Assad, the country’s dictatorial nominal ruler, will outlast President Obama, it seems good news – or at least insight which does not subscribe to entirely defeatist or entirely unhelpful positions – is in short supply and retains a vital importance. To this end I decided to investigate further the tales, visions and fates of those who form perhaps the most debated concept within Syria’s already complex conflict: the ‘good guys’. Many – including, perhaps paradoxically, those on the political Left – have alleged that they do not exist; that they are, in effect, politicised fabrications designed either to undermine or actively to overthrow Assad and restrain the influence of his Iranian allies. Others – possibly those of a less pessimistic mien – contend that while the ‘good guys’ may once have existed, they have since disappeared amid the fog of war, some of them becoming Islamists or being crushed, others fleeing the country entirely.

To investigate such wildly divergent claims, I decided to ask for the assistance of Kyle Orton, an analyst of the travails of Syria and Iraq, as well as the much-discussed subject of Salafi-jihadism more generally. Orton is a newly appointed Associate Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, for whom he has authored a paper entitled ‘Destroying Islamic State, Defeating Assad: A Strategy for Syria’. A contributing editor at Left Foot Forward, he has recently written a much-discussed piece for The New York Times, in which he argues that ISIS is not, as is commonly understood, the child of American intervention in Iraq, but rather that it is ‘the afterlife’ of the Saddam regime. I can think of few people better qualified to offer insight on this most pressing and emotive of issues.


I began my questions in a rather generic vein. With an eye to the fate of the moderate opposition, how did he view the situation for the rebellion in general terms? First it was necessary to state the more mundane facts of the matter: ‘The Syrian conflict is in a state of stalemate and has been now –with varying shifts – for more than two years’. In this it is true that, despite some recent changes in the balance of power – or at least how it is perceived internationally – things remain decidedly balanced on the ground. ‘There is little possibility of an outright rebel victory,’ Orton says, ‘but there is also little possibility of an outright regime victory; even the massive infusion of Iranian-controlled manpower has been unable to do more than halt the contraction of the regime’s areas of control, and the direct involvement of the Russian air force is said by many, especially in the opposition, to have been provoked by a severe crisis for the regime, specifically in keeping the insurgency out of its heartland in Jibal Ansariya’.

The Russian question is a vital one, not least because it appears that the Russians – who have long targeted non-ISIS fighters while claiming to do the opposite – are now breaking with even the pretence to be defending the world from the armies of its greatest pariah. Indeed, it appears that Russian airstrikes are now slated to target rebels of the Southern Front, an area of the map almost entirely unpolluted by ISIS influence.


Such a statement, however, requires clarification of a sort. Hence my next question to Orton, which tackles a particularly vital issue indeed: that of identifying who the ‘good guys’ really are, and whether the term is truly relevant at the present time. It must be admitted that in Orton’s analysis, there is little room for terminological positivity: ‘I personally would not in general use the term “good guy” in Syria’.

The reasons for this are rather interesting, however, and they speak to a essential truth about how, especially in conflicts which have ran on for nearly five years, attempting to retain entirely clean hands can become a virtual impossibility.

There are some people of admirable qualities, but “good guy” tends to be a euphemism for “moderate” and in the current context – after five years of remorseless war – almost everybody has, in the heat of the moment, said or done something that can be used to disqualify them from the “moderate” category.

An interesting facet of this particular situation, one which strikes at a truth at the very centre of much official manoeuvring on the subject, is how governments have reacted to decidedly adverse conditions on the ground. In short, it has not been positive. ‘Bizarrely,’ as Orton has it, ‘as the war has protracted the conditions for acceptable interlocutors have been tightened – at least as regards the opposition’. In other words, in a perverse bid to remain spotless in the light of day, politicians have deliberately made it increasingly difficult for potential allies to qualify, to reach those heights. This strategy – though it may feel and look good – is deeply counter-productive, as it means that the pool of potential allies is effectively ever-shrinking; and this is thoroughly unhelpful, especially when other participants in this conflict – namely Iran and its expanding web of proxies, many of which are decidedly unpleasant (and some of which are internationally designated terror groups) – have exactly the opposite policy. Pace Orton: ‘One notices that the term “extremist” is never employed about the sectarian, Iranian-run militias or the Shi’ite jihadists that we euphemistically call “the Assad regime”’.


A particular focus of my own research has been the life and revolutionary activities of Abdelbasset al-Sarout, a former football goalkeeper who became a legendary protest leader during the early days of the rebellion. From the podium to the battlefield, Sarout has remained at the forefront of the fight against the regime, starring in the 2013 documentary Return to Homs, for example. I asked Orton how he would describe Sarout’s apparent ideological journey, which has taken him from an idealistic young protestor to an increasingly religious warrior, whose detractors have suggested that he may have sworn some kind of allegiance to the ‘caliph’ of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

‘Sarout, I think, represents the great tragedy of what has happened in Syria to a population that rose only with the request for reforms – the protests initially did not call for the regime’s downfall’.

Sarout’s story – such is his emblematic power – dovetails neatly with the experience of many Syrians, and deserves a wider explanation, which Orton provides.

The first major protest broke out spontaneously on February 15, 2011, in the main souk in Damascus when, in a perfectly ordinary act of arbitrary brutality from the regime, a man from the security forces started beating up a shopper. Suddenly a crowd gathered around the man who was being attacked and chanted, “The Syrian people will not be humiliated”.

Later, this very slogan became a rallying cry for the burgeoning rebellion. What came next is almost a study in modern media and its ability to hasten the outbreak of revolution.

Someone caught the scene on a mobile telephone and it went viral in Syria, and with the wave of rebellion having toppled two dictatorships to that point and ignited a ferocious revolt against Muammar el-Qaddafi, which was receiving Western support, when the security forces arrested and tortured some kids in Deraa for scribbling on their schoolhouse wall – and then humiliated their parents when they asked for their release – it was just one push too many.

In many cases the grievances which pushed citizens to agitate against the regime were local; Sarout, himself a proud son of the city of Homs, made special reference to the city in his songs, which soon became the centrepieces of his protests. In this sense an ossified local government can be the spawn of a corrupting central government, and the rot can spread outwards from there.

To resume the narrative, it is important to remember that the early days of the Free Syrian Army sprung from the tradition of local people – in this case defectors from the Syrian military itself – abandoning the transient safety and security apparently provided by the regime.

As the uprising was militarized, it was initially low-ranking military defectors who organized the rebellion, and the army is the most secularized – at least in a social sense – institution of the Syrian State, so the “Free Syrian Army”-branded rebels were in the lead.

But aside from simply commenting on the emergence of these monoliths, it is the task of the analyst to investigate why such things turned out as they did. In this case, Orton identifies several missed opportunities for the revolution to establish its ‘secular’ credentials – and a sort of ‘moderate’ predominance – early on. It can also be said that none of this was in any way assisted by the regime, which had something of a stake in promoting the view that the rebellion was made up entirely of Islamists and would-be terrorists.

The Assad regime’s use of what is now the Islamic State to attack the New Iraq meant that there were already powerful jihadi-Salafist networks in the country, and they activated quickly, if covertly. The regime had also allowed a lot of space for Islamism internally, especially in Aleppo, and that played a role in the Islamization of the insurgency, as did people falling back on their faith in a time of desperation. That first winter, 2012-13, of the armed rebellion was the major missed opportunity: it was left to Jabhat an-Nusra and its allies like Ahrar a-Sham to distribute blankets and fuel and medical supplies.

This apparent advantage in organisation is something which has served the nascent Islamic State well, too. Its propagandists infiltrate rebel-held towns, accusing the Free Syrian Army, for example, of shoddiness and ineffectiveness and corruption, before offering its own iron rule as a kind of alternative. For many Syrians, especially if the choice is between that eventuality and the return of the regime, ISIS – perhaps paradoxically – can be seen as the positive alternative. Returning to the military situation, however, Orton has a particularly strong sense of how Salafist groups like the Nusra Front came to prominence within the movement against the regime.

‘Nusra embedded itself successfully in the rebellion because we allowed it the time to.’ This was not helped by other military realities, which played directly into the hands of hardened combatants; and all of this, in Orton’s telling, is almost impossible to separate from international inaction; he points out that ‘Assad escalated over 2012 – from mass-artillery attacks, to helicopter gunships, to fighter jets, to scud missiles – and still we stood by’.

And worse was yet to come: ‘Indifference was bad enough but when Assad took the final step and unleashed chemical weapons and still the “red line” was not crossed, the population began to see the West as aligned with the regime, and forces identified with Western power suffered commensurately – the absolute height of sectarianism and extremism was in late 2013 after the Ghouta massacre and the “non-strike incident”’. In this Orton refers to the inability – or, of course, unwillingness – of the United States and its allies to enforce the ‘red line’ apparently drawn by President Obama over the use of chemical weapons. In some telling, French jets were actually in the air when Obama announced that he had cut a deal with Russia in order to avoid keeping this particular promise.

For Syrians the whole situation became decidedly starker, culminating in the relative success enjoyed by some Salafist groups; as Orton suggests, if hope cannot be found elsewhere, there is little reason to avoid formerly unpleasant alliances in situations of tremendous need.

With this in the background, the argument for not embracing Nusra, a capable force fighting the regime, to curry favour with people who are effectively aligned with the regime (the West) got weaker and weaker. The real surprise is that more people haven’t embraced the jihadists, and that so many of them still yearn for the West to forge a relationship with them.

Returning once more to Sarout, it must be seen that, in the wider context of the war, he represents a kind of distillation of what has gone so wrong in Syria. ‘Sarout tracked the developments for the opposition in Syria at every stage, from the early optimism and ascendancy of the moderate insurgents, to the desperation and betrayal after the chemical weapons attack that strengthened the extremists, and then the second war with the Islamic State’, Orton remarks. ‘Sarout is in that sense a Syrian everyman.’


The assessment then became more wide-ranging, branching out to include the veracity of some claims made in the run up to the effort by David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, to begin airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, as well as in Iraq. One of the central planks of this effort was the idea that there is a fighting force of roughly 70,000 Syrian rebels willing and able to serve as effective ‘boots on the ground’, a position which will be vitally necessary in the eventual defeat of ISIS. In The Spectator, Charles Lister wrote a piece in which he defended the much-criticised figures.

I asked Orton what he thought of this particular assessment, and whether there really were that many potential allies on the ground. ‘Yes, I think Lister’s numbers are about right for the Syrian opposition’, he surmised. Indeed, this process links rather heavily to a research project of his: ‘I’m currently compiling a database of the Syrian opposition to try to put some names to the smaller units and to map out their location and power’. This, it seems, adds credence to the Prime Minister’s claims.

There is also another side to this discussion to bear in mind, however. ‘But Lister’s caveat is also worth bearing in mind: the rebel force that can and will fight the Islamic State can only be mobilized fully once Assad is gone.’

This particular interpretation is not a terribly popular one; but it is true – and it must be acknowledged as such – that for many Syrians Assad is a greater threat than the Islamic State. Orton elucidates: ‘While the regime’s indiscriminate air attacks and starvation sieges against the rebellion and opposition-sympathetic – or, to be blunt, Sunni – populations remains, Assad will be the priority for the opposition’.

Furthermore, it must be borne in mind that, in Orton’s words,

Once Assad is gone and some kind of interim government is in place that has broad acceptance and isn’t engaged in genocidal attacks on the population, then the Syrian rebellion can turn to the task of sweeping the Islamic State from the country. The longer-term challenge, indeed, is al-Qaeda, which has skilfully wound itself into the rebellion and created a mutual dependency with not only rebel units but local populations; allowing more time for al-Qaeda to embed itself in Syria will not make it easier to remove.

And it is vital still to think of what was lost by failing to support the revolution in its earliest years. As Orton says, ‘Counterfactual history is near-impossible but it is difficult to imagine that if, in 2011-12, there had been swift, forceful action to remove the Assad family and its retainers, and U.S. troops had remained in Iraq, there would have been so many Syrian deaths and the Islamic State would be this powerful’.


Perhaps a more pertinent question remains: which participants in this conflict, if any, could be considered ‘good guys’; who, in other words, is it worth supporting, even with the aforementioned moral over-compensation of many Western policymakers? Orton’s initial gambit is not encouraging: ‘”Good guys” tends to be a euphemism for “moderate,” and in that sense it is not incredibly useful in Syria’.

Nonetheless, there are positive aspects to glean from this picture: ‘There is a large and determined, deeply-socially-rooted moderate insurrection in Syria that one could broadly say is associated with the Free Syrian Army-style ideals that began the revolution’. This is positive and, as Orton says, ‘such people are not going anywhere and almost certainly remain what the majority of Syrians want’.

‘But weaponizing support has been a perennial problem for the moderates, who were left in the hands of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and their competing interests, which repeatedly pulled apart moves toward rebel unity.’ Examples of this can be seen in the inconsistent way in which rebel groups are armed by foreign authorities, as well as the frequent internecine struggles between rebel groups, either at the conference table or on the battlefield.

But perhaps more important than all of that is the failure of the United States of America, whose president seems entirely unwilling to lead in any substantive sense (and whose time-limited term in particular counsels against any action at this late stage). As Orton has it, ‘[t]he United States’ refusal to take the lead in forming a united armed opposition in Syria is part of the explanation for the current situation’.

This does not mean that there is no substantial force worthy of support, however; there are many. But maybe this support may need to be a little less than unconditional – especially considering the circumstances; Orton writes that ‘[t]here are Islamist forces and even Salafist forces who can and should be engaged by the West – not supported, in all cases, but engaged’. Such a proposition may seem too much for some, but it must be remembered that these are difficult times; and as was suggested previously, after nearly five years of bitter civil war, it is almost impossible to find any organisation with entirely clear consciences.

When considering the military balance sheet it must be noted  that ‘The CIA already supports something like 40,000 rebels in Syria, so there are obviously people who can be worked with when the Western support allows the rebels to fight both the regime and the Islamic State.’ And ‘[t]he FSA-branded Southern Front remains a very hopeful development – though the West seems intent on sabotaging it by repeatedly cutting off its offensives and making it look like a plaything of foreigners rather than an instrument for the liberation of Syrians’.

Ultimately, I think we are beyond “good guys” in Syria; there are people who are powerful enough in Syria that they are going to have to be dealt with, some of them who have goals consistent with our own interests, and some of whom we might even like. Crafting a policy to strengthen those who can help us achieve our goals in Syria and stop the killing does not get easier by delay.

My final question was a fairly simple one; and I think it represents a reasonable point on which to end. What hope, I asked my interlocutor, is there for moderate elements within the revolution henceforth?

The moderate armed opposition in Syria is not going to disappear, though its members can and have been killed and driven from the country, weakening it on the battlefield. In a socio-political sense, however, the moderate rebels remain the dominant force – note that “moderate” does not mean “secular”, two concepts that often get conflated. Many people have joined Islamist brigades because the Islamists were stronger, and those who joined with the Islamists for resource reasons could be pulled back into the mainstream if the moderates were made powerful enough and with a sustainable source of support. The real problem for the moderate opposition in Syria is that over time they are being more deeply entwined militarily with al-Qaeda, and the job of untangling the two gets more difficult the longer it is left.