If the rebels fighting the Assad regime in Syria are murderous executioners, members of al Qaeda, and crazed barbarians who cut out the hearts of their enemies and eat them, then it’s obvious that the United States has no business supporting them. And, let’s not kid ourselves, some of the fighters do fit those descriptions. There are plenty of Syrian snuff films to prove the point.
But unfortunately for those who want to use the evils of the rebels as an excuse to walk away from the evils of the regime, a new study published by the respected Arab Reform Initiative in Paris makes a detailed and often compelling argument that, despite the odds, many “pro-democracy” forces remain in the field. These are people who first rose up against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 with peaceful protests, only to be gunned down in the streets or abducted, tortured, mutilated, and slain in the night. Those who survived decided, stubbornly and bravely, that it was better to fight than to flee.
Bassma Kodmani, the co-author of “Empowering the Democratic Resistance in Syria,” was a spokeswoman for the rebellion in the early days before factions allied with the international Muslim Brotherhood forced her out. But her report is not about settling scores. It’s an attempt to set the narrative straight about who the rebels are and where the best of them might take the country if given half a chance.
After the first waves of savage repression, those members of the opposition who decided to fight were dependent on outside support for money and arms. That didn’t come from the West; it came from Islamist groups. Kodmani doesn’t name them, but they include the Brotherhood, the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and the private “charitable” networks that have been funding violent jihad around the world since the Afghan war against the Soviets in the 1970s and ’80s. “What we have in Syria is not an Islamist revolution,” says the report, “but a popular uprising that received funding primarily from Islamist sources.”
At the same time, the Assad regime sought to portray all its opponents as crazed terrorists. It set about systematically eliminating moderate and secular opponents. French scholar Gilles Kepel, author of numerous books on radical jihad and revolution, believes the Syrians may also have taken a page from the Russians, who encouraged radicalism to divide the opposition and set the factions against each other in Chechnya.
Meanwhile, in Syria, “a combination of factors created what the activists on the ground call a ‘godly climate,’” says the Arab Reform Initiative report. As the regime ratcheted up its use of chemical weapons over the last several months, “upholding the struggle was not anymore a question of ‘who is ready to fight’ but increasingly ‘who is willing to die.’ Jihad became the most effective rallying cry.”
(It’s worth remembering that you can always find God in a foxhole, and it’s no different if God’s called Allah. American soldiers headed into combat in World War II, after all, singing “Praise the Lord and Pass the ammunition.”)
Despite the creation of a Supreme Military Council by several Syrian opposition factions in November 2012, under the command of Syrian Army defector Gen. Salem Idris, there remains very little structure to the organization, and the more than 30 commanders under Idris continue to get funding and weapons earmarked just for them by their particular patrons. The SMC is made up mainly of former Syrian government soldiers, but also some groups that rose out of left-wing and Nasserite political movements, and many local militias that may have gotten their initial funding from individual businessmen or would-be warlords.
Al Qaeda–allied groups like the Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian Islamic Front, and the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front have earned prestige in some of the most ferocious combat against the regime. And it’s a sad fact that most prolonged revolutions come to be dominated by the most radical factions, whether the Bolsheviks or the Taliban.
For the first year or so of fighting against the regime, the differences among the groups were secondary to the cause of bringing down the dictator. But as Assad has held on and jihadi extremists have started to dominate some “liberated” corners of the country, especially in the north and east, “efforts by mainstream Syrian groups to re-gain control of the resistance and re-instate its original objectives are leading to a de facto triangular struggle involving the regime, radical jihadi groups and the democratic opposition,” according to the Arab Reform Initiative report.
Kodmani and her co-author, Félix Legrand, argue that the curse of the Syrian rebels—their current disorganization—is also in some respects the democratic revolution’s greatest hope. “If money and arms are defining the direction of the conflict,” they write, “the fluidity of the armed groups should be used as an opportunity to shape the situation on the ground.” What they are saying, essentially, is that money doesn’t buy people; it just rents them. They will go with the leaders who are better funded, better armed, and who appear to have a better chance of winning in the long term.
The Obama administration says it is trying to help the “right” rebels on the ground—now. It could have done that a year ago or more, and rebel partisans like Sen. John McCain often blame it for not doing so. But last year was an election year, and there was no percentage for Obama in a new Middle Eastern adventure. (Do we recall Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney waving the flag of Syrian liberation and vowing to commit America to a new war in the Muslim world?)
The question is not what could have been done then, but what can and should be done now. Support for a well-vetted opposition in Syria is one of the best hopes Washington has to affect the outcome of that war in a way the United States and its allies can accept.
What remains to be seen is whether the opposition will benefit from the kind of air assault on Assad’s forces that the Obama administration is contemplating. If Assad is only inspired to use more chemical weapons in order to show his defiance—a real possibility, especially if he thinks support for Obama’s actions is weak—then every faction of the opposition will be threatened with annihilation. Assad’s chemical-loaded bombs and rockets are called “weapons of mass destruction” with good reason.
The American people, Congress, and the president may yet choose to call the whole thing off, cancel plans for attack, annul the programs to support the rebels, and let Assad do what he will. But on the ground in Syria, the fighters up against him will still praise the Lord, and hope that someone passes the ammunition.