President Obama chose an exclusive interview with ABC News's Barbara Walters to announce his decision that the United States now formally recognizes the recently formed umbrella coalition of Syrian rebels who are fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. The coalition is known formally as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. In yet another example of leading from behind, Obama's decision follows recognition of the rebel coalition by France, Britain, Turkey, the European Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
"We've made a decision that the Syrian Opposition Coalition is now inclusive enough, is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population that we consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime," Obama said.
Providing arms openly and directly to the rebels, rather than relying solely on the indirect channels set up by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, may be next. Obama may also give in to pressure from Turkey and establish some sort of no-fly zone over Syrian territory near the Turkish border. Although Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said this week that the relevant intelligence had "really kind of leveled off" with regard to Assad's plans to move forward imminently with the use of chemical weapons, any intelligence assessments suggesting more aggressive preparations by Assad can be used by the Obama administration as a pretext for military intervention.
In short, it looks like the Obama administration has made a strategic decision to position itself for possible direct military intervention in the 21-month-old civil war and to gain influence during any post Assad transition by putting its money on what it thinks is the most inclusive opposition group.
The question remains, however, as to the composition of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces that the Obama administration has recognized as "the legitimate representative" of the Syrian people. And just because we confer that mantle of legitimacy on the coalition does not make it so.
In his interview with Walters, President Obama sought to isolate extremist elements. "Not everybody who's participating on the ground in fighting Assad are people who we are comfortable with," Obama said. "There are some who, I think, have adopted an extremist agenda, an anti-U.S. agenda, and we are going to make clear to distinguish between those elements."
Shortly before Obama's decision to officially recognize the opposition coalition became known, his administration designated a militant Syrian rebel group known as the al-Nusrah Front as an al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist organization.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland explained that "al-Nusrah has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by [Al-Qaeda in Iraq] to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes."
Obama is taking us deeper into some very choppy waters in a very leaky boat. He stubbornly continues his refusal to recognize the broader transnational threat posed by Islamic jihadists who use many front groups to spread their Islamist ideology by force or stealth.
Jihadists play on a global field, but are now focusing their attention on destabilizing and replacing regimes in the Middle East and Africa. They go under many names and migrate back and forth among bases in Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Algeria, Mali and Nigeria, just to name a few locations. Syria is their current front-line target.
According to the co-founder of the medical charity Doctors Without Borders, Dr. Jacques Beres, who treated Syrian rebels in the city of Aleppo, about half of the rebels he treated were jihadists, many of whom were foreigners. "It's really something strange to see. They are directly saying that they aren't interested in Bashar Assad's fall, but are thinking about how to take power afterward and set up an Islamic state with Sharia law to become part of the world Emirate," Dr. Beres told Reuters.
The most cohesive ideology fueling the best armed groups, whether affiliated with the opposition coalition the Obama administration chose to recognize or remaining outside the coalition, is Islamic jihadism. At least twenty-nine different Syrian rebel groups, including fighting "brigades" and civilian committees, have reportedly pledged their allegiance to al-Nusrah. More than 100 anti-government organizations and fighting battalions are planning demonstrations under the rallying cry "we are all Jabhet al-Nusra."
Blackballing the al-Nusrah Front means nothing. If they deem it useful to do so, that particular al Qaeda front group will merge with other jihadist groups or re-organize under a different name, enabling them to infiltrate the opposition coalition undetected.
The Obama administration believes that it can co-opt the Islamist influence by working with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Given the deteriorating situation in Egypt under Muslim Brotherhood rule, the Obama administration's assumption of a cooperative Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is naive at best. Their ultimate goals are the same as the more violent jihadists. They just use different tactics to get there.
Any doubt as to the Muslim Brotherhood's true intentions in Syria should be dispelled by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood chapter's denunciation of the Obama administration's decision to designate the al-Nusrah Front as a terrorist organization. A Muslim Brotherhood official said the U.S. had made a “very wrong” decision.
The leader of the coalition itself, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, agrees with the Muslim Brotherhood's sentiment. “The logic under which we consider one of the parts that fights against the Assad regime is a terrorist organization is a logic one must reconsider,” he said. On other occasions, this leader of the coalition we are now backing has called Americans "stupid" and, according to Foreign Policy, claimed that users of Facebook "involuntarily become Israeli or American spies through information-sharing."
Let me say this as clearly as I can. We are getting into bed with pathological, deceptive savages who passionately hate us and want to do us harm. The liberal secular activists who are part of the opposition are more likely to face beheadings if the Islamists take power than to have any role in Syria's post-Assad future. Experience has shown that secularists are good at taking to the streets and starting revolutions in Islamic countries such as Iran and Egypt, but they invariably are overwhelmed by the better organized and armed Islamists. And without a strong, effective secular bloc truly dedicated to a democratic, pluralistic society, we will have no influence to speak of.
Many members of the Syrian opposition want the United States to simply butt out at this juncture, except to supply them unconditionally with money and arms. The train has already left the station and left America behind, they contend. Obama's attempt to run after this train and climb aboard now smacks of desperation to remain relevant. It won't work.
Other than to do what is absolutely necessary to prevent Assad's chemical weapons from getting into the wrong hands such as al-Qaeda or Hezbollah, President Obama would do well to get off the train and let events take their ugly course as they will do anyway.
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