Syria’s Overblown Extremist Threat
Despite the popular narrative, America isn’t arming Al Qaeda in Syria
There’s a lot of scary information floating around about the Syrian rebel forces.
This past June, on the late-night infotainment shouting match called Real Time with Bill Maher, Maher declared that giving weapons to Syrian rebels was “basically arming Al Qaeda.” Then he rolled footage of a Syrian rebel leader chowing down on a piece of meat he’d just carved off of a fallen soldier. It’s the same footage Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin points to when he wants the rest of the world to know who these rebels really are.
Earlier this week, the Syrian Electronic Army — a pro-Assad group of hackers — redirected the Marine Corps recruiting homepage to a piece of propaganda. The simple white-on-black note explained that the Syrian army had been fighting Al Qaeda for three years, appealed to U.S. soldiers who may be tasked with fighting in Syria to disobey orders, and ran pictures pulled from the web of supposed military members hiding their faces behind pieces of paper declaring their wish not to fight alongside Al Qaeda.
But recent conflicts between the Islamist rebels and their less hardline brothers in arms cast this narrative and propaganda into doubt. The few people reporting from the frontlines in Syria aren’t telling the same story. They’re seeing support for the hardline Islamist groups drop as funding and support pours into the more moderate causes.
What’s the reality? Are these rebel groups really hardcore Islamic extremists bent on global jihad or are they largely moderate Syrians seeking revolution and the overthrow of a cruel dictator who uses chemical weapons to keep them in check?
This past December, Al Nusra — a Syrian rebel group openly aligned with Al Qaeda — kidnapped a photojournalist. They robbed him, stole his identity, and beat him for months before he escaped. Al Nusra, or Jabhat Al Nusra or the Nusra Front, is a franchise of the Al Qaeda-backed Islamic State of Iraq. They announced their existence in January of 2012 and were listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. in December 2012.
Another extremist faction — the ISIL, or Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Levant) — were in the vanguard of a group of rebels that took control of an airbase in Aleppo at the beginning of August. The reports of their leadership during the assault led some journalists to fuel the fear of armed extremist rebels coming to prominence among the rebel groups.
The above stories don’t even take into account the Syrian Islamic Front — another group formed recently out of 11 different smaller groups — which is either the largest hardline Islamist group or the group with the best PR. They’re on Facebook, they’ve got Twitter, they’ve got a website and they’ve got 30,000 soldiers under their control. Or at least they claim they do on their website and Facebook pages. When pressed to confirm the number, they’re less than forthcoming.
These stories, taken on their own, make the face of the resistance look pretty grim. No wonder then, that some are reporting the loss of support of the moderate resistance and the rise of Islamic extremism among the rebels. The feeling is that the people will follow the rebel groups that are making the most progress. They’ll follow the leaders that are winning, and the rebel factions with extremist backgrounds and funding from other groups in the region have the best guns and the best plans.
Refutations from the ground
But the extremists are not the only factions that are winning. And the rebels are not one cohesive unit.
The bulk of the fighting rebel forces are labeled the Free Syrian Army or FSA. Rather than being a formal organization, FSA is used to designate any non-aligned group fighting against Assad. This group is made up of neighborhood militias and other independent factions with loose goals and alliances. The whole thing is overseen by the Syrian Military Council, a group recently formed to give an air of order and cohesion to the group. The SMC provides a sympathetic face to the FSA, centralizes the funding and keeps everyone communicating. They also have strict policies about keeping their distance from Al Qaeda and other extremist groups.
Elizabeth O’Bagy — senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War — has been in and out of the country over the past few years, and her reports filed with the Wall Street Journal makes it seem like the FSA is winning. “Moderate opposition groups make up the majority of actual fighting forces, and they have recently been empowered by the influx of arms and money from Saudi Arabia and other allied countries, such as Jordan and France,” O’Bagy reports.
Thomas Pierret, writing for Foreign Policy, is telling a similar story: “Would arming moderate Syrian rebels reduce the influence of their radical counterparts? … backing the most pragmatic insurgent groups is what Saudi Arabia has been doing for months now, and it seems to work.”
Robin Yassin-Kassab, in a story written for The Guardian, spent time among the rebel areas along Syria’s border with Turkey. As Robin traveled through the cities he met a populace tired of the narrative of a civil war and tired of foreign-backed sectarians.
The rebel factions with the biggest guns and the most support draws the most troops. The FSA is backed by Saudi Arabia, France and the United States. The Assad regime has the backing of Iran and Russia. Who’s arming the Islamic militants? Whoever it is, they don’t have pockets as deep as Moscow and Washington.
More than just revolution
People like simple narratives. Two years ago, the war in Syria was a revolution. Now it’s a civil war. People from neighboring and not-so neighboring areas have flooded to the scene to stake their claim on the conflict. Some, like the bulk of the Free Syrian Army are protecting their neighborhoods and fighting against a dictator. Others, like ISIL and Al Nusra see the fighting in Syria as part of a larger conflict in the region and beyond.
Not everything is at is seems. Matthew Schrier — the photojournalist mentioned earlier — escaped from his captors and was aided in his flight from the country by members of the Free Syrian Army.
And just how many of these rebels are there? That’s hard to say. A lot of what we hear is self-promotion. In June, Brig. Gen. Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army claimed he had 80,000 fighters under his command, but was contradicted several days later by a rebel spokesman who claimed four times the number. “In practice, a meaningful headcount of rebels is almost impossible to make, both due to the scarcity of reliable information and to myriad problems of definition,” noted a recent report from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.
The information is so contradictory, that not even the White House and its generals are sure how many Syrians have taken up arms against the regime.
ISIL — that group of rebels that helped capture the airbase in Aleppo — are a splinter group of Al Nusra. The two groups work together from time to time, but there are ideological and organizational differences.
When the Islamist factions aren’t fighting amongst themselves or against the pro-Assad forces, they’re fighting against the Free Syrian Army. In early August, ISIL drove FSA forces out of the northern city of Raqqa. “We warned the international community a year ago that without weapons and help in organizing, the extremist threat will become a reality,” FSA spokesman Louay Mekdad told Lebanon’s The Daily Star.
What’s going on in Syria is far more than just a simple revolution or civil war. What started as civil unrest has blossomed into something far more deadly and complicated — and has sucked the surrounding region in like quicksand.
The bulk of the fighting force is made up of a militias grown in neighborhoods, fighting street to street and wishing to oust an oppressor. Al Qaeda is there, yes, and their presence in the region is a serious concern, but they are far from the face of the resistance.
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