The young rebels and opposition activists gathered in a school to discuss how the northern Syrian town of Al Bab should be governed after the departure of Bashar al Assad’s soldiers were taken aback by the question: “Why aren’t there any women here?” It was the summer of 2012, more than 12 months into the uprising against the Syrian president, and more than a year before Abu Bakr al Baghdadi announced the formation of his al Qaeda breakaway, the Islamic State of Syria and Sham, or ISIS.
Initial surprise at my question was followed by smirks. The young men who had talked about ushering in a new era of modern democracy and freedom in Syria pushed forward a nervous young imam to explain. “It is not in our tradition for men and women to mix,” he said. “They can have their own meeting, if they want. And if we need advice on some issues, we can ask them.” There were some chuckles at this. So much for democracy, at least in its Western guise.
Later that night I sat with two local sheikhs who explained how they were forming a court to adjudicate civil disputes and rule on criminal cases. “We will use Sharia law,” said Abdulbaset Kuredy. “What else is there? After Assad, the whole country will be governed by Sharia.” Then he launched into a condemnation of the corrupt West and its acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. The sheikhs were aligned with the Free Syrian Army, the rebel group now touted in Washington as the “moderates” to support in the fight against Assad on the one hand, ISIS on the other.
There was nothing I saw in Al Bab in August 2012—still early days in the insurrection that is now halfway through its fourth year—that led me to feel that if the Syrian uprising toppled Assad, it would lead to an inclusive, minority-respecting, and more or less democratic outcome. Like other countries convulsed by Arab Spring insurrections, there was a mismatch between Western expectations and perceptions and the thinking and religious views of the majority involved in the fighting, and that was a year before the emergence of ISIS. The war back then was clearly becoming more sectarian and Islamic—the trajectory was obvious.
After two years of brutal and barbaric sectarian warfare, the Syrian rebellion has seen an even greater hardening of sectarian attitudes among Syrian opponents of Assad and his regime, which is dominated by members of the minority Alawite sect. Many secular activists from the urban areas of Damascus or Aleppo withdrew long ago, sickened by what the uprising was becoming. They were appalled at the rise of the jihadists and their cruelty, worried by the strength of Islamist factions among the rural fighters who are the backbone of the militias. The center did not hold.
A key element in President Obama’s strategy to halt the jihadist campaign of terror across the Levant involves reversing his earlier decision to refrain from fully backing so-called moderate Syrian rebels with arms and training. Exasperated by infighting among the leaders of the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, and worried by the weakening of the more secular elements, the Obama administration basically left the uprising alone. Critics like Sen. John McCain say that helped the rise of extremists like ISIS.
Now the president is asking Congress for $500 million to bolster rebels he kept at arm’s length to give them weapons and pay for training these insurgents he once derided as ineffectual “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth.”
But we shouldn’t imagine this is a change of policy in line with President George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” or the “New Beginning” philosophy of Obama’s 2009 address in Cairo that sought to mend relations between the U.S. and the Arab world.
In his 13-minute speech last week, Obama did not mention the word “democracy” once—nor, for that matter, did “freedom” make any appearance. The arming and training of Syrian rebels is about U.S. national security interests and the rolling back of the jihadists.
But the decision to do so prompts a key question once again: Who are the moderates? Who in rebel ranks can be trusted not to turn Western-supplied weapons against the West later, or switch sides as we’ve seen in Mali and other countries racked by Islamist rebellions? Who can receive arms that won’t be shared with ISIS or the official al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra? Who won’t embarrass the West by engaging in some act of egregious cruelty, torturing prisoners or executing foes?
There were not many moderates around two years ago, as I found in Al Bab then, and there are far fewer now. A year ago the town was overrun by ISIS and many of the young rebels joined the group; others who remained loyal to brigades affiliated with the FSA pulled out. The bulk of those, according to locals, hooked up with the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist militias who are the second largest fighting insurgent formation after ISIS. The front has close ties with al-Nusra.
The Obama administration’s frustration with the rebellion and distrust of the insurgents were overlooked briefly a year ago, when Obama’s “red line” was crossed and Assad used chemical weapons against rebels and civilians. The administration considered taking action. Under skeptical questioning by some lawmakers, Secretary of State John Kerry insisted last summer: “The opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership, and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution, which will be broad-based and secular with respect to the future of Syria.”
That wasn’t the case then and it isn’t now. Shortly after Kerry’s comments, a respected British defense consultancy, IHS Jane’s, released a study claiming that more than half of the rebels battling to oust Assad were either jihadists or hardline Islamists.
“There are certainly moderates remaining,” says Jonathan Schanzer, a Mideast expert with the Washington-based think tank the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “The problem is that they are few in number and lacking in support. They have been marginalized by U.S., European, Turkish, and Arab policies that have only served to boost the presence and capabilities of the more radical factions. It’s unclear to me how Washington’s new approach can help reverse this trend in an urgent or expeditious manner—which is what is needed.”
Most of the militias that are effective fighting formations and have scored off-and-on successes on the battlefield against ISIS are not moderate by Western standards. Most are Islamist to varying degrees and some, like Ahrar al-Sham, which lost most of its top leaders last week in a bomb attack in Idlib, are dedicated to establishing a Sunni theocracy in Syria. They don’t subscribe to transnational jihadism, but they do have strong ties to al-Nusra, which is part of the al Qaeda international franchise.
The most effective anti-ISIS fighters are with the Kurdish self-defense forces of the YPG, but because of their links with the Turkish separatist PKK, which is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and European countries, they can’t be included in groups that receive Western backing.
According to a report issued last week by the International Crisis Group, the “mainstream” rebel opposition is caught in a desperate plight, “locked in a two-front war against the regime and IS [Islamic State or ISIS], their position is more precarious than at any time since the fighting began.”
ISIS has pressed an offensive north of Aleppo and is threatening to deliver a severe blow to rebel opposition groups by cutting off their supply lines to Turkey. If this can’t be stopped, the Crisis Group warns, the loss “would reverberate throughout the country, pushing many to give up the fight or join a more powerful militant force: IS.”
So speed is also of the essence. But not only is the Obama administration going to find it hard to select rebel groups it can work with, it will also have the problem of persuading them to focus on ISIS at the expense of their struggle against Assad, and if the regime starts making up more ground, that in turn could ignite local Sunni anger to the benefit of the jihadists.
There are already signs emerging that key Islamist groups aren’t ready to fall into line with the Obama agenda. Last week a deal was struck between IS and an important Islamist coalition, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, which is made up of about 20,000 fighters.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based Syrian opposition monitoring group, the jihadists and the Front have agreed “not to attack each other” while fighting the principal enemy, Assad.