Alongside BBC correspondent David Lloyn; Richard Spencer, Middle East editor of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph; Shiraz Maher, author of Salafi-Jihadism:The History of an Idea; and Azadeh Moaveni, author of Lipstick Jihad and Honeymoon in Tehran – I was part of this panel discussing Daesh, Nusra, Assad, Saudi-Iran, and the West. (It was also the first time I saw a finished copy of our book Burning Country).
This was published at the National.
Security discourse dominates the international chatter on Syria. Most Syrians see Assad as their chief enemy – he is after all responsible for the overwhelming proportion of dead and displaced. But the Syrian people are not invited to the tables of powerful states, who are in agreement that their most pressing Syrian enemy is ‘terrorism’.
There is disagreement on who exactly the terrorists are. Vladimir Putin shares Assad’s evaluation that everyone in armed opposition is an extremist, and at least 80% of Russian bombs have therefore struck the communities opposing both Assad and ISIS. North of Aleppo, Russia has even struck the rebels while they were batttling ISIS. This wave of the ‘War on Terror’ – now led, with plenty of historical irony, by Russia and Iran – uses anti-terror rhetoric to engineer colonial solutions, just as the last wave did, and ends up promoting terror like never before.
There is no question that the moderate Syrian opposition exists, in the form of hundreds of civilian councils, sometimes directly elected, and at least 70,000 democratic-nationalist fighters. In a recent blog for the Spectator, Charles Lister, one of the very few Syria commentators to deserve the label ‘expert’, explains exactly who they are.
Lister’s book-length study “The Syrian Jihad”, on the other hand, focuses on those militias, from the Syrian Salafist to the transnational Jihadist, which cannot be considered moderate. It clarifies the factors behind the extremists’ rise to such strategic prominence, amongst them the West’s failure to properly engage with the defectors and armed civilians of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in 2011 and 2012.
Whatever the hearts-and-minds rhetoric at the United Nations, in Syria the Obama administration is feeding the flames of Sunni extremism, and proving once again the truism that the American state is an enemy of the Syrian people (as it’s an enemy, like all states, of all peoples, including the American).
We expected strikes on ISIS. Some of the strongest strikes (and the strikes are far stronger than in Iraq), however, have been aimed at Jabhat al-Nusra (the Victory Front), the organisation from which ISIS split. Nusra is certainly an extremist Salafist group, and is openly linked to al-Qa’ida. Because its ideology terrifies not only minorities but also huge swathes of the Sunni population, it’s also a strategic obstruction in the way of the Syrian revolution. In August 2013 it participated (with ISIS) in the only documented large-scale massacre of Alawi civilians in the conflict. On the other hand, Nusra (unlike ISIS) was until yesterday actually fighting the regime, not other rebel groups. From January, along with every rebel formation, it’s been fighting ISIS too. And its leadership is entirely Syrian. Many Syrians, not necessarily extremist Salafists themselves, admire Nusra’s victories against their most immediate enemy – the Assadist forces dropping barrel bombs and raping and torturing at checkpoints. A sensible answer to Nusra would be to provide weapons and funds to Free Army forces who would then be in a position to gradually draw men from the organisation, slowly making it irrelevant (most men don’t care about the ideology of their militia’s leadership; they care about food and ammunition). But the Americans are allergic to working with the people on the ground most immediately concerned by the outcome, and bomb from the air instead. Nusra is now abandoning front line positions (in some areas the regime may be able to take immediate advantage). One Nusra leader has already spoken of an alliance with ISIS against the Americans.
Syria’s new daily routine: the Americans and Gulf Arabs bomb the Salafist extremists while Assad bombs the Free Army and Islamic Front (and of course civilians – as usual it isn’t being reported, especially not now the televisual US war is on, but about a hundred are being killed every day). The headline in regime newspaper al-Watan reads “America and its Allies in One Trench with the Syrian Army against Terrorism”. The opposition reads it this way too. Several demonstrations yesterday condemned the American strikes, called for America’s fall, and for solidarity with ISIS and Nusra. A sign at one protest read: “Yes, It’s an International Coalition Against Sunnis.”
This piece, a rebuttal to Marc Lynch, was published at Foreign Policy under the title Fund Syria’s Moderates.
In response to non-violent protests calling for reform, the Baathist regime in Damascus has brought Syria bloodshed, chaos, and created the conditions in which jihadism thrives. The now partially armed revolution is doing its best to roll back the bloodshed and to eliminate the regime that perpetrates it.
Yet Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch, one of the more perceptive analysts of the Middle East, argues that after more than 60,000 lives have been lost, “the last year should be a lesson to those who called for arming the rebels.” In a previous article, Lynch noted, “Syrian armed groups are now awash with weapons.”
Anyone laboring under the delusion that pro-revolution foreign powers have flooded Syria with hi-tech weaponry should scroll through the blog of New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers or peruse the web pages displaying improvised catapult bombs and PlayStation-controlled armored cars. These are hardly the tools of a fighting force that has been armed to the teeth.
While it’s true that some armed groups — particularly the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra — have sometimes found themselves in possession of plenty of weaponry, the resistance remains overwhelmingly dependent on the weapons it can buy, steal, or seize from captured checkpoints and bases.
Simply put, the assumptions of those who called for arming the rebels have not been tested because the rebels have not been armed — except in irrelevant, sporadic and, in Lynch’s words, “poorly coordinated” ways. For instance, an ammunition shortage slowed the original rebel advance in Aleppo to a destructive halt.