The Folly of Supporting the Syrian Rebels

Another Islamist coup in the making?

Recently, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) co-sponsored a non-binding Senate resolution with Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) that called for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria and for the US to back the Syrian opposition by “urg[ing] the President to support an effective transition to democracy in Syria by identifying and providing substantial material and technical support, upon request, to Syrian organizations.” Like other resolutions introduced in Congress over the past year, this one falls short of calling for arming the Syrian rebels. However, even limited and targeted support for the opposition is a very bad idea at this juncture. For a wide variety of reasons, supporting the opposition is sure to be a crap shoot -- with a good chance the US and the West would roll snake eyes.

The Rubio resolution was also co-sponsored by several other Democrats, including Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), one of the most liberal members of the Senate, along with Johnny Isakson (R-GA), one of the body's most conservative senators.  The strange legislative bedfellows underscores the belief in Congress that President Obama simply isn't doing enough to assist the opposition in Syria and staunch the flow of blood from civilians who are agitating for Assad's ouster. The resolution also condemns Russia and Iran for their support of Assad's crackdown, and calls upon the State Department to find ways to "encourage defections" from the Syrian military.

Well meaning but flawed resolutions like Rubio's fail to take into account many important issues, including the extreme disorganization of the opposition -- both political and military -- as well as the almost total lack of respect for Syrian exiles. Here are some of the major obstacles to making US aid to the opposition serve American interests, and not the interests of the Islamists and our enemies:

Al-Qaeda in Iraq in Syria

Recent bombings, including those in Syria's two largest cities of Damascus and Aleppo, are the work of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to the US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

Clapper also says that AQ in Iraq has "infiltrated" the Syrian opposition and that some of its fighters have slipped into Syria and joined the forces fighting Assad. He added that the opposition, “in many cases may not be aware they are there.”

This is an extremely troubling development. Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri recently released a video message calling on fighters in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to mobilize and fight the Assad regime. So far, according to Clapper, there has not been a noticeable influx of fighting men into Syria. But the problem with aiding the Syrian opposition -- even non-military aid -- is that we can't be sure that aid wouldn't also facilitate al-Qaeda's plans. Nor is it clear at this point who, if anyone, in the Syrian opposition might be in league with the terrorists.

Islamists in the Syrian Opposition

There are two main political opposition groups; the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Coordination Committee (NCC). The SNC, according to Randi Slim of Foreign Policy, is the broader based group, and is composed of "the Damascus Declaration Group (Syrian reformist intellectuals), the Muslim Brotherhood, representatives of the Istanbul Gathering (a group made up mainly of Islamists and independent technocrats), youth activists, individual Kurdish activists, and Assyrians." The NCC is mostly made up of leftists and a smattering of individual activists. Both groups prefer a political solution to the crisis with the SNC only willing to talk to Assad if he agrees to step down. The NCC is willing to negotiate political change once the troops are pulled out of the population centers and the bloodshed is halted.

Both groups are terribly disorganized, and factions within the organizations can't agree on much of anything at all, including the key issue of foreign intervention. To attempt to bring the opposition under a single umbrella, a new organization has recently come into being: the National Bloc for Change. It is made up of "80 prominent opposition figures, lawyers, clerics and activists" to support the revolution. It claims to "welcome any movement" against the Assad regime, and says it is more representative of Syrian society. A member of the newly formed bloc, Waheed Saqar, who is also a prominent opposition figure, said, “Honestly speaking, we do not think that the coordination committee or the National Council [accurately] represent fabric of Syrian society. Our aim is to be one unified body without discrimination or marginalization of any Syrian."

Who makes up the opposition? The SNC is headed by Burhan Ghalioun, a Professor of Political Sociology at the Sorbonne, and the NCC is led by Haitham Mana’, who went into exile in France in 1978. There are also several internal opposition groups (the Local Coordinating Committees are one prominent and effective organization), including an Islamist group, the Higher Council for the Syrian Revolution.

But it is in the SNC that some observers are beginning to see a growing influence of Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salifists. Reuters reports that one secular member of the SNC says that Islamists make up half that body's membership. The Muslim Brotherhood says it is "only 30%." We have seen this before in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia. A facade of human rights activists, liberal politicians, leftist intellectuals, and secularists start out trying to control the revolution only to see the Islamists move in when the dust settles and take power.

Until the US can be sure that won't happen in Syria, aid should be withheld.

Who Is Included in the Free Syrian Army?

No one can say for sure how many rebels have joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA), how effective it is, the chain of command, or even who is leading it. Two former Syrian officers claim to command the FSA. One of them is Riad Al-Asaad, a former Syrian Air Force colonel. He is based in Turkey along the Syria border and appears to have some operational control over rebel forces. The other is General Mustafa Sheikh, who defected recently and heads a new military council to organize defector officers. Asaad is the officer issuing the most press releases, but his control over the FSA is less a matter of planning operations that are carried out by the small units that make up the bulk of FSA forces, and more a matter of straining to maintain even rudimentary communications with his fighters.

It is thought that there are about 7,000 rebel members of the FSA scattered in small groups throughout Syria. They use hit and run tactics against targets of opportunity and then melt back into the civilian population. Their effectiveness is growing, but they have a long way to go before they can be called an "army."

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has been advocating the arming of the FSA by the US and other Western countries. Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy gives several reasons why this is a bad idea, including the fact that we have no information on who most of the local commanders are, much less the make up of the forces (as mentioned above, Al-Qaeda has infiltrated some of these groups). Lynch points out that the FSA "remains something of a fiction, a convenient mailbox for a diverse, unorganized collection of local fighting groups."

The Rubio resolution would supply the FSA with communications only. But Lynch points out that this kind of aid is folly and could be "a valuable resource that will strengthen the political position of those who gain control of the distribution networks." This would hardly facilitate unity among the opposition and might even have the opposite effect.

No Coordination or Respect Between the Syrian 'Street' and the Opposition Groups

This may be the most important reason for holding off supplying aid to the Syrian opposition. There is a disconnect between the high-minded politicos who meet in the safety and security of Turkey and the street activists -- mostly young men between the ages of 17-35 -- who brave the bullets of Assad's army and militia on a daily basis.

The activists feel that the job of opposition groups like the SNC is "to act on the demands of the street and get support for the rebels abroad," according to one prominent street activist in Homs. "The Syrian people can lead their revolution against the regime by themselves," he added.

Many of the street organizers pay little attention to the SNC and NCC because the vast majority of members of those groups have lived in exile for many years. The young men who are risking their lives and freedom by coordinating demonstrations, as well as smuggling video, audio, and written reports out of Syria to tell the world what is happening, scoff at the notion that any of the lawyers, human rights activists, clerics, or businessmen who haven't lived in Syria -- some of them for decades -- can possibly earn their respect. It is their bodies on the line, and what a bunch of politicians decide in Ankara hardly impacts their daily battles with Assad's security forces. That, and the groups' continued promises of support and money have proven hollow. Colonel Asaad recently called the SNC "traitors" for their lack of follow through.

Even the Arab League appears reluctant to give much support to either the FSA or the opposition groups. A meeting scheduled for February 24 of the "Friends of Syria" will likely not decide to aid the opposition quite yet. "Gulf states and other Arab and non-Arab states that want to recognize the SNC fear splits inside the opposition, so that recognizing the SNC turns into a point of weakness for the opposition instead of a point of pressure on the regime," said one Arab League official.

There are far too many unknowns and variables for the United States or Western powers to start aiding the opposition -- even if the aid is non-lethal. Until there is unity among those trying to overthrow President Assad, the risks of aiding the wrong parties in one of the most important countries in the region outweighs any possible good we could do.

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