According to secular Syrian rebels interviewed in Istanbul, even though the insurgency to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is increasing in size and sophistication, Gulf Arab states—chiefly Saudi Arabia—are empowering Islamists at the expense of majoritarian secularists. Rebels from the Idlib and Hama provinces fear that religious extremists will be harder to control or contain in a post-Assad state, a consequence they see as leading directly from continued American myopia and inaction on Syria.
I traveled to Istanbul last weekend to catch up with Mahmoud, a Syrian-American who joined the armed uprising several months ago and served as my fixer and translator in Antakya, Turkey, in early May. He was with Abu Shahm, a battalion commander from the Hama province, and Abu Shahm’s son, Shahm, who was recently featured in a front-page story on Syria by Austin Tice in the Washington Post. All three were there to raise money for the insurgency, liaise with members of the political opposition and, apparently, receive explosives-training tutorials by an unnamed Syrian (that last reason for a Turkish furlough turned out to be a dud).
Abu Shahm had run a successful rock mining company that he liquidated about a year ago to finance a small battalion of 150 men centered in the Hama suburbs. Shahm has his own unit based in Madaya, Idlib, though he still largely follows his father’s orders. He’s a Russian-trained civil engineer his mid-20s and speaks pretty good English.
Both Shahm and Mahmoud were explaining a complex four-day operation in the town of Kafr Zeita they took part in earlier this month. It started with about 500 fighters, but Mahmoud estimates that some 2,000 men eventually joined in from adjoining towns and villages before the rebels withdrew.
“I can tell you, we destroyed 13 BDMs [armored personnel carriers], two tanks and damaged an attack helicopter by firing from a pickup truck,” Shahm told me. “Do you see videos of any of this on the Internet? No. We don’t have the time to record anything, and buying a camera is money we would rather spend on ammunition.”
Shahm’s account tracks with cited gains in rebel coordination and sophistication in recent weeks, both at the regional and local levels. Battalions in Idlib, Hama, Homs, Daraa and Damascus have begun to form military councils—majlis askeri—which partner with local revolutionary councils—majlis thawra—in a kind of ad hoc administrative government. Whole swathes of territory have been liberated and held under rebel control, particularly in the northern and central rural areas of Syria. As a new report by Joe Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War finds, Syria is “approaching a tipping point at which the insurgency will control more territory than the regime.” The largest of what Holliday calls “de facto safe zones” is in the Idlib province, and its epicenter is Jisr al-Shughour, the town where the first instance of armed rebellion was documented last June when a handful of military defectors led by Lieutenant Colonel Hussain Harmoush joined up with lightly armed townsfolk to retaliate against the mukhabarat’s assault on civilians. (If the United States, NATO, or some consortium of Western and Turkish forces, do decide to intervene militarily in Syria, they should focus their attention on carving out this town and its adjoining districts as a viable rebel command center.)
One need only consider the Assad regime’s tactics of late to get a sense of its inefficacy and desperation on the battlefield. The army has taken to shelling whole cities or towns from a distance rather than sending in units to retake them for two reasons. First, the regime hasn’t got reliable manpower to deploy to every restive area in the country. Only about a third of the 230,000-strong army has been deployed to quash the rebellion because Assad fears the disloyalty of his Sunni rank-and-file soldiers, the bulk of whom have been confined to barracks and kept under surveillance. Second, even Fourth Division and Republican Guard units are terrified of close clashes with rebels, who are given succor and shelter by local populations. Recall that 7,000 Fourth Division troops invaded Baba Amr in late February after the 400 or so Free Syrian Army fighters announced their tactical withdrawal following four weeks of heavy artillery bombardment.
If anything, Holliday undershoots the mark in terms of numbers. He reckons 40,000 rebels now operate inside Syria. The rebels I was with say the real figure is closer to 100,000. YouTube videos and journalist dispatches only glimpse the surface of the war of liberation, they claim.
While Shahm and Abu Shahm say they have received some of the light weapons and ammunition now being discreetly dispensed by the Turkish military at the border in Antakya and handed off to “delegations” within Syria—mainly Kalashnikovs, light automatic rifles and RPGs purchased by Saudi Arabia and Qatar—they’re quick to add that this hardware is useless for waging offensive operations against the regime. “RPGs do not destroy T-72 tanks,” Shahm said. “The entire battle in Kfar Zeita cost us about $500,000 if you add up everything: the ammunition, the supplies and the food for our men. You know how difficult it is to raise this money in Syria? We are getting no help from the outside, yet the Salafists are being financed by Saudi Arabia and so they can buy the best weapons.” Iraqi smugglers, Mahmoud elaborated, are importing anti-tank and anti-aircraft armaments that only these religious extremists seem to be able to afford.
It’s a worrying trend that will only grow worse as Western powers continue to abstain from direct military involvement in Syria. According to the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, the CIA is now helping to funnel Saudi- and Qatari-bought materiel to vetted and acceptable rebel forces, but its apparent partnership with the Muslim Brotherhood indicates a lax standard for ideological permissiveness. As ever, the Obama administration believes that all the United States has to fear in the Middle East is al-Qaeda and that because “moderate” Islamists are the best financed and organized, they’re the most deserving of US assistance. And so secular battalions such as Abu Shahm’s are left to scrape and scrounge, while the Brotherhood, using the Syrian National Council as its cover, hoovers up influence on the ground with millions in cash and a happy coordination with both Washington and Ankara. Riyadh, meanwhile, remains the Salafists’ closest ally.
So far, Salafists still only account for a slender minority of Syrian rebels, and the majority refuses to work with them because, as Mahmoud put it, “that would mean praying five times a day, not drinking beer and preventing Christians and minorities from joining the ranks.”
The Ahrar al-Sham Battalion, which operates in Hama and Idlib, is the largest Salafist battalion in Syria with a foothold in the central-north of the country. These fighters are well equipped and even better financed. Mahmoud’s seen them disburse wads of never-ending Syrian lira out of bags to designated arms buyers with instructions to buy “300,000 bullets” or advanced anti-aircraft guns from Iraqi smugglers. Salafists are also engaged in suicide bombings, such as this one. According to Mahmoud, it shows a 17 year-old boy, whose three older brothers were killed by the regime, driving a truck into the al-Salam checkpoint in Idlib and blowing it and himself up.
The tragedy in all this is that the US still has the capacity to rescue the opposition from radicalization and deeper internal fracture along ideological lines. The current policy of directing or orchestrating Gulf state supply lines in a covert fashion should end. Going along with further diplomatic kabuki with Russia and China—which now seek to enlist Iran’s help for solving the Syria impasse—insults both Syrian patriots and common sense. President Obama should announce the formation of a US task force dedicated to training and equipping select rebel battalions for conventional and guerilla warfare, including intelligence and counterintelligence, and gendarmerie law enforcement for areas that have already been liberated from the regime. He must also begin to marshal international political backing for safe zones and air campaigns in Syria, even if he deems these only feasible once his own campaign for re-election is over.
Michael Weiss is communications director at the Henry Jackson Society.