Hussein Ibish

Time to aid, not stigmatize, the Syrian rebels

Syrian opposition groups willing to fight both the regime and al-Qaeda are worthy of Western and Arab support

Syrian rebels in Deir Ezzor.

With potential American strikes against Syrian chemical weapons-related targets averted for now, attention once again turns to the Syrian opposition. This is a crucial issue because the main way the West and the Arab states can, and should, act to influence the Syrian conflict is through a robust engagement with acceptable armed opposition forces.

As long as the Damascus dictatorship continues to enjoy impunity, air supremacy and unrestrained support from Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, the existing power structure has no incentive whatsoever to look for an agreement, nor can it be forced into a de facto stalemate that can provide a modicum of stability.

They think they're winning, and have no reason to adjust either their narrative or their calculations. So they will stick with the story they have clung to since they began gunning down unarmed protesters in the first few months of the uprising: that Syria is under attack by foreign-led and inspired al-Qaeda terrorists.


Since the days of the American invasion of Iraq, President Bashar al-Assad and the jihadists have had a bizarre kind of partnership in which they loath yet find each other mutually useful. This Iraqi pattern is replaying itself in Syria. Indeed, it's so useful that the potential for Syrian and Iranian regime penetration of certain aspects of the jihadist leadership cannot be discounted.

Meanwhile, Westerners who don't want to have anything to do with the conflict are quaffing this Kool-Aid with evident gusto. The Assad/al-Qaeda binary is very appealing, even comforting, to many Westerners who just don't care about Syria. It is a perfect excuse for not only inaction, but apathy and indifference.


As French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius reportedly observed, "much of the public appeared to think that the choice in Syria was between Mr. Assad’s government and Islamic militants, but he said that was false."

Al-Qaeda groups in Syria are small, but disproportionately funded and empowered. Among the rest of the fragmented rebel groups, the majority are affiliated with the Supreme Military Command (SMC) of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Added to that are the nationalistic and anti-jihadist, but religiously conservative, Salafist forces that range from the fairly moderate to the more doctrinaire.


A recent evaluation by Barak Barfi estimated that about 80,000 troops fall under the FSA umbrella, with another 40,000 moderate Islamists, 30,000 more hardline but nationalistic Islamists, and 6,000 "foreign jihadists." Even allowing for a doubling of jihadist figures to 12,000, this illustrates that the neglected and underfunded nationalist groups comprise the large majority of fighting personnel in the Syrian opposition.

It is imperative for the West and its Arab allies to move quickly to help turn them into a unified, streamlined, and moderate military and political force that can serve as a functional opposition to marginalize al-Qaeda while combating, and ultimately potentially negotiating with elements of, the existing power structure.

Even sensationalistic claims that grossly exaggerate the presence and power of al-Qaeda or other "hardline Islamist" forces militate for such a policy, unless, of course, that's a situation one finds acceptable or desirable.

Cutting through the dizzying minutia some clear core realities can be discerned.

First, there is a sizable body of nationalistic and anti-jihadist armed rebels who desperately need support of all kinds.

Second, al-Qaeda-related forces in Syria are in big trouble. They have recently split into two quarreling factions: Jabhat al-Nusra and the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIS). ISIS appears to be both prevailing in this split and systematically repeating all the mistakes which made al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) disintegrate into a vicious irrelevancy: overreaching, excessive violence, and a refusal to cooperate with anyone that will not submit to their authority.


This is an ideal situation for Mr. Assad, but no one else.


A grim pattern has emerged in the north: rebel forces take control of areas, and ISIS then attempts to establish theocratic dictatorships in towns such as Raqqa where they stand accused of making the Assad dictatorship look benign. Their demand is simple: total, unquestioning obedience to their vicious, obscurantist rule or death.


It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which they have become despised by local populations and other insurgent groups. Popular demonstrations calling for the ouster of ISIS from Raqqa have been large and continuous, and met with the utmost brutality by the jihadists. ISIS is on the same path of systematic self-destruction as its AQI predecessor in Iraq, but much more rapidly.


Third, an influx of Arab state support for the SMC has shifted the war to the south, where jihadists are much less present than in the north, and also altered the balance of power within the armed opposition itself.


The present moment presents a perfect opportunity for outside forces to take advantage of the split within the al-Qaeda factions and greatly expand and enhance the support for nationalists opposed to both al-Qaeda and the regime.


Searching for "secularists" as opposed to "Islamists" in this variegated, fractured, and fluid opposition movement is futile and pointless. The question is, can groups that will stand in opposition to both al-Qaeda and Mr. Assad be identified, supported, and strengthened? The answer is yes.


The more support they receive, the stronger they will become. And, if such support is contingent on increasing moderation and a growing commitment to a tolerant, pluralistic Syrian future – a goal many such groups already say they fully share – they will be greatly strengthened.


The only reasons for not engaging in a massive project of support for moderate armed opposition forces – including ones that could fall somewhere in the taxonomy of "Islamist" – would be either not to care at all about the outcome in Syria, or to implicitly or explicitly support either the long-term survival of the Damascus regime or the indefinite continuation of the conflict.


The war will go on, and the West and its Arab allies can either act belatedly to hasten its conclusion and influence its outcome. Or they can sit back and watch the chaos continue to flourish, entirely to the advantage of the regime.

Syrian rebels fighting pro-regime forces in the eastern town of Deir Ezzor. (AFP photo/Abo Shuja)

"The question is, can groups that will stand in opposition to both al-Qaeda and Mr. Assad be identified, supported, and strengthened? The answer is yes."

  • Vlad Tepes

    The only reason your boys in the West want to help is for their own national interests. No more, no less. Proof of that is Egypt and Bahrain. On top of that, why are you calling for intervention. It's not enough for you that Syrians are dying? You are a war monger, eating a cheesburger, and dreaming of full scale war to satisfy your appetite for blood. Funny that you all just sit there are write little blogs that are repetative and have little or no effect. The best solution for you is to get your weapon and some rations and head straight for the front lines. Then, you might actually get a tiny amount of respect. Halleleja.

    September 19, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    ..will convince Western and American audiences otherwise. President Obama should hold fast to a non-interventionist platform, he should listen to his people, and reject calls of incitment for an intervention in Syria. He should demand that Saudis, Qataris, Kuwaitis, Egyptians, Algerians, and any other Sunni country "suffering" at the sight of all those Sunnis being butchered by Assad, mobilize their armies (instead of radical fundamentalists), and dispatch them to Syria. There is no need for American, British, French or other European soldier-maids to go do the cleaning of the filthy Arab-Muslim household. There are enough bleeding-hearted and wealthy Sunnis to do the job.

    September 18, 2013

  • Snackbar

    Indeed a truly a correct outlook and assessment of the matter, hanibaal.

    September 18, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Hussein Ibish continues to throw fallacies at what he believes to be "naive Americans" just to get them to jump inthe Syrian swamp. I have yet to read or hear ONE SYRIAN REBEL articulate a secular political outlook. In the names they give themselves, in their endless repetitions of "Allahu Akbar" in television footage, in the much publicized atorcities they have committed, the Syrian rebels appear to any objective observer a melange of Islamist radicals with a zillion ideologies and foreign attachments. We do not need the "Al-Qaeda" label to know that these people are by and large equally harmful to the future of Syria. Hussein Ibish - who spent his earlier career in Washington defending the Syrian regime against anyone who tried years ago to hold the Assad regime accountable - is now a staunch advocate of toppling that regime, and he wants (at the behest of God knows which Saudi or Gulf State government) to do it with American blood and treasure because Arabs and Muslims supposedly do not stain their hands with the blood of other Muslims, so they need Christian and Jewish blood to do it for them. He has now lowered his arguments - as he is running out of them - to declaring, and perhaps inciting, a civil war between different factions of the Syrian rebels, which will no doubt add complexity (and therefore more apprehension by the West) to the situation. WHERE ARE THOSE SECULAR SYRIAN REBELS? Why aren't they at the forefront? Could Saudi Arabia, the summum of radical Islam parading itself as a respectable country, fund secular fighters? MAybe to topple the apostate Alawite Assad. But then what? Given a choice between, in a post-Assad era, seculars and radical Islamists, whom does Ibish think will Saudi Arabia support? The short answer is that the overwhelming evidence on display today in Syria is that the Syrian rebels are in the vast majority equally harmful to American and Western interests, and no amount of drivel from Saudi lobbyists in Washington DC will convin

    September 18, 2013

  • Snackbar

    Oh also, these are facts: At least 50% of rebels are hardliners. At least 50,000 fighters are extremists. AlQaida is the most organized and strongest force. Numbers don't matter, it's quality, and the opposition has disintegrated into more than 1000 different factions. Islamic Jihadist Front/Al-Nusra(clashing with Lebanon)/Jund al Sham(clashing with Lebanon) are the most organized and effective forces. No more than 35,000 civilians died. Most died from collateral damage by rebels holding mass executions, sharia courts, summary executions, IEDs, and hiding in civilian buildings and compounds while engaging the army. Not the mention indiscriminate and incompetent use of heavy weapons and explosives. The rebels are too inhumane. No code of conduct, no morality, no discipline, no cohesion, no national spirit, just lust for money greed power and blood. Why, just yesterday they executed a dozen civilians for belonging to a different religion and oh yes, they beheaded the helicopter pilot with the rushing of their tears of joy cut short of the horrifying scene. Get a clue people.

    September 18, 2013

  • Snackbar

    There are some things I caught that were fallacious just by reading the two paragraphs from the bottom. This isn't good speculation. Yes it's difficult to find secular fighters instead of islamists because secularists do not exist anymore and as rare as your imagination permits. Many in Syria have realized the opposition is extremely radicalized and polarized; they've resorted to backing Assad, of course not all too enthusiastically, because of the opposition's extent of brutality and ruthlessness, not to mention the opposition is incompatible with the values and beliefs of the Syrian people. Besides that, the author seems to think opposition groups, if 'supported' become 'stronger' and 'win' and 'avert chaos' and 'eliminate extremism' and 'bring about world peace' and 'cure cancer'. Far from it, and let me tell you find folks why; we don't reincarnate or reanimate. You see, once you die, it's over, at least on this planet. The nonexistent 'secular' 'opposition' that is to be armed will lose fighters which won't be replaced since providing assistance from the west does not entail sending any jihadists the West might be lucky enough to get rid of. In effect, a waste of money and effort. It's so easy the solution isn't it? Just arm the secular moderates right? lol.

    September 18, 2013