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.”