Sunday, October 26, 2014
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Syria’s Hijacked Struggle

LONDON – As Syria’s civil war has progressed, the West’s views on arming the opposition have become increasingly confused, which reflects the growing muddle on the ground. While President Bashar al-Assad’s regime remains vicious and tyrannical, and some of its opponents’ motives remain altruistic, the conflict can no longer be defined simply as one of good versus evil.

No unified, patriotic Syrian opposition has existed since extremists hijacked the peaceful protests in 2011. Indeed, some opposition tactics are as brutal as those of the Syrian regime. The United Nations estimates that security forces have suffered 15,000 fatalities, and the opposition 10,000, and that 45,000 civilians have died in the last two years of fighting. And the UN has condemned militant groups – which now form the majority of fighters in Syria – for murder, kidnap, torture, assault, corruption, and reliance on child soldiers.

With Syria engulfed by chaos, the world does not know what to think. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has admitted that the United States lacks a clear picture of the situation in Syria.

Moreover, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League special envoy for Syria, reports that opposition forces include 38 nationalities. Jihadi fighters connected to Al Qaeda are now in the majority. The United Kingdom’s Home Office has warned that hundreds of British and other European Muslims fighting in Syria alongside Al Qaeda-linked rebel groups could return home to carry out terrorist attacks.

In February, Syria’s state news agency accused jihadi rebels of firing a rocket containing chemical materials in Khan al-Assal – an allegation that the British television outlet Channel Four backs. The rebels, however, blame the government for the attack (which neither side has been able to prove involved chemical weapons). The Free Syrian Army (FSA), which the US, the UK, and France support, has denied involvement in the alleged chemical attacks, but has not condemned the rebels’ brutal campaigns.

Puzzlingly, US Secretary of State John Kerry, justifying plans to provide the FSA’s Supreme Military Council with additional assistance, has cited the danger of “letting this country, the heart of the Middle East … [become] hijacked by extremists.” But to oppose extremism and support the FSA is a blatant contradiction. Even the US Department of Justice has stated categorically that most of the FSA adhere to Al Qaeda’s ideology.

The Supreme Military Council is overwhelmingly Islamist, with rebel-controlled areas of Syria already practicing sharia (Islamic law). Salim Idris, the council’s chief of staff, has expressed a willingness to fight alongside extremist groups that refuse to accept the unified command. He has labeled only the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra as extremist (though he rejects America’s branding of the group as a “foreign terrorist organization.”)

In this context, the West’s belief that it can channel assistance to certain elements of the opposition is absurd, as is the concept of “non-lethal” aid, such as night-vision goggles, medical equipment, and armor, given the conventionally “lethal” aid that is already pouring in from the Gulf states. The Guardianrecently reported that Jordan is accepting Saudi money to supply arms directly to Syrian rebels. Western proponents of such aid, such as Kerry and UK Foreign Minister William Hague, must recognize that these supply channels do not discriminate between opposition groups.

More important, Western leaders must comprehend the danger of picking sides. And that means that they must stop ignoring the lessons of the campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980’s, which facilitated the Taliban’s rise to power, and the intervention in Libya in 2011, which produced a weak and divided government that remains locked in a power struggle with Islamist militias.

France, the US, the UK, and Turkey have recognized the Syrian National Coalition as Syria’s future interim government, despite reports that two-thirds of the SNC’s 263 founders are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The SNC’s outgoing leader, Moaz Al-Khatib, has publicly criticized America’s decision to blacklist Jabhat al-Nusra – as has the SNC’s key backer, Turkey.

It is ironic, to say the least, that the West’s democratically elected governments happily engage with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, but refuse to work with more liberal groups. Our views are much too liberal for the SNC, and its key backer, Turkey, whose foreign minister has said that jihad in Syria is not related to terrorism. They disregard the warnings of people like Alain Chouet, the former chief officer of the French General Directorate for External Security in Damascus, who recently denounced France’s provision of weapons to the rebels as “completely illegal” and described how “the jihadi militias have taken precedence over the others.”

The repercussions of mishandling Syria will extend far beyond the country’s borders. After all, Syria is situated on a national, sectarian, regional, and geopolitical fault line, where the strategic interests of Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon confront those of NATO, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and Jordan. And regional tensions are running high.

Improving Syria’s prospects for peace and democracy must begin with diplomacy. Democracy is about representation, and that should cover the full mosaic of Syria’s people. Every group with an interest in the country’s future – including the government, domestic opposition groups, and those in exile – should be invited to participate in official talks. And, in order to create a level playing field, it is essential to recognize that the Arab League (which has already given Syria’s seat to the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled SNC) represents the autocratic states that are encouraging sectarianism and extremism in Syria.

During this process, Western governments must stop providing money or other kinds of aid to opposition groups in Syria, and put pressure on Turkey and the Gulf countries to stop supporting extremists. Any financial aid should be channeled through organizations like the Red Cross and UNICEF to supply medical care to civilians, or allocated to a fund for post-war reconstruction.

Some leaders may be starting to recognize the need for a new narrative. The UN Security Council has condemned the opposition’s recent attack on a mosque in Damascus, which killed a senior pro-government Muslim cleric. US President Barack Obama recently expressed concern about Syria “becoming an enclave for extremism, because extremists thrive in chaos.”

But, in reality, Syria has already become an enclave for extremism. Responding with military aid will simply turn a catastrophe into an apocalypse.

Read more from our "Revolutions on the Rocks" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedSakar Ghad

    Of course what Mr Ribal does not tell you is that his father- Rifaat Al-Asad- is widely believed to stand behind the infamous massacre of Hama in 1982 when it is believed over than 20,000 were killed. Rifaat was subsequently sent to exile by his brother Hafez Al-Asad (the father of the current president Bachar) to make peace with the wounded population. Syrian rebels are overwhelmingly conservative Moslems like the majority of Syrian population, and they are not terrorists. The terrorist elements are well known to western intelligence who are heavily present in the country. Meanwhile Mr. Ribal lives in London feeling detached from his people but not from his desire to replace his cousin Bachar at some point as a president.

  2. CommentedJason Weeks

    In an ideal world, the international community would back a broad based diplomatic solution for Syria along the lines recommended by the author. In reality, diplomacy has been tried and has failed. Diplomacy, always preferable to war, is not a panacea and normally works only after both sides are exhausted and have been convinced, by bitter experience, that they cannot win militarily. That is not the case today.

    Western restraint on arming the rebels while Russia, Iran and others continue to arm and support the regime will do nothing to forward a diplomatic resolution, since it will do nothing to discourage Mr. Assad's belief that he can still win. He has been gaining ground militarily lately, and he knows that a diplomatic process, to be credible, would lead to his ouster. Continuation of the conflict has brought a flood of refugees which threatens to destabilize the entire region.

    Apparently, Assad is not strong enough to win and but not weak enough to be disabused of his hope for victory. Until his fundamental calculation changes, the crisis will drag on; and the only thing likely to change it will be more robust Western intervention.

    The Syrian opposition is hardly very admirable. It is disunited and fractious, and the strongest element does appear to be Sunni extremists or Salafiyya. But just as the US and Britain had no choice but to ally with the Soviet Union in World War II, we have no choice but to deal with the Syrian opposition today. Future stability cannot be reconciled with the survival of the regime, unless Assad lays waste his entire country, which overwhelmingly opposes him.

    In the real world, every decision we make costs something, and the cost can be frightful (like half of Europe under Soviet domination or the rise of the Taliban). But not doing anything is also costly. At the end of the day, we have to face the world as it is and make the best of the actual choices we have, instead of wishing we had better ones or holding on to hopes that have already been dashed.

    Whatever choice we make will bring problems we have to deal with in the future. These, however, cannot justify our refusal to face up to the catastrophe going on right now.

  3. CommentedHenrik Ørsted

    It is revolting to see what happens there in Syria. An acquaintance had been in the country in 2008, and he saw children playing in the latest fashion outside peaceful villages http://www.beel.org/journeys/index.php?journey=2008-05_Syria.

    The problem is that Syria had historically a much more profound influence upon Islam than Libya, Tunisia or Egypt.

    This has to be borne in mind. And the backers of the terrorist armies in Syria, most of the foreign fighters actually originate from Iraq, have to be punished. And this is, as mentioned in the article Saudi-Arabia, one of the world's most brutal dictatorships. And the Saudis have the funds to interfere in US politics and sponsor their advocates in US politics.

    Syria needs to be cordoned off and Turkey and Iraq the main transit countries of the al-qaeda armies need to be shored up in order to sequester the terrorist at the borders. They have recently shot a turkish police officer and set a control post on the Turkish border alight.

    The terrorist fighters do not recognise Syria anyway, but see it in terms of a supraislamic state named Levant including Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, South Turkey, Israel and parts of Iran.

    Well, we need to reinforce order in Syria and this we can only do by having some very tough words with the Saudis and no one else.

    Any further inflammation of the conflict in Syria will endanger the Russian Caucasus regions, since not a few terrorist fighters in Syria originate from there and Turkey is playing with the fire in the Northern Caucasus.

    If weapons are supplied to anyone, this would be the current Syrian regime. Israel has to see that for its very existence, it is paramount to join Iran, Russia and China in this matter. Everything else would mean supporting the major evil.

    There is no unified or organised Syrian opposition. The fighting power of any secular fighters of the Free Syrian army in terms of manpower is far too low (90 islamist jihadis toward 10 secular opposition).
    Read more at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/the-contradictions-of-syria-s-civil-war-by-ribal-al-assad#WyQIqvjPVg6JcMmB.99

  4. CommentedHenrik Ørsted

    It is revolting to see what happens there in Syria. An acquaintance had been in the country in 2008, and he saw children playing in the latest fashion outside peaceful villages http://www.beel.org/journeys/index.php?journey=2008-05_Syria.

    The problem is that Syria had historically a much more profound influence upon Islam than Libya, Tunisia or Egypt.

    This has to be borne in mind. And the backers of the terrorist armies in Syria, most of the foreign fighters actually originate from Iraq, have to be punished. And these is as mentioned in the article Saudi-Arabia, one of the world's most brutal dictatorships. And the Saudis have the funds to interfere in US politics and sponsor their advocates in US politics.

    Syria needs to be cordoned off and Turkey and Iraq the main transit countries of the al-qaeda armies need to be shored up in order to sequester the terrorist at the borders. They have recently shot a turkish police officer and set a control post on the Turkish border alight.

    The terrorist fighters do not recognise Syria anyway, but see it in terms of a supraislamic state named Levant including Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, South Turkey, Israel and parts of Iran.

    Well, we need to reinforce order in Syria and this we can only do by having some very tough words with the Saudis and no one else.

    Any further inflammation of the conflict in Syria will endanger the Russian Caucasus regions, since not a few terrorist fighters in Syria originate from there and Turkey is playing with the fire in the Northern Caucasus.

    If weapons are supplied to anyone, this would be the current Syrian regime. Israel has to see that for its very existence, it is paramount to join Iran, Russia and China in this matter. Everything else would mean supporting the major evil.

    There is no unified or organised Syrian opposition. The fighting power of any secular fighters of the Free Syrian army in terms of manpower is far too low (90 islamist jihadis toward 10 secular opposition).
    Read more at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/the-contradictions-of-syria-s-civil-war-by-ribal-al-assad#WyQIqvjPVg6JcMmB.99

  5. CommentedHenrik Ørsted

    It is revolting to see what happens there in Syria. An acquaintance had been in the country in 2008, and he saw children playing in the latest fashion outside peaceful villages http://www.beel.org/journeys/index.php?journey=2008-05_Syria.

    The problem is that Syria had historically a much more profound influence upon Islam than Libya, Tunisia or Egypt.

    This has to be borne in mind. And the backers of the terrorist armies in Syria, most of the foreign fighters actually originate from Iraq, have to be punished. And these is as mentioned in the article Saudi-Arabia, one of the world's most brutal dictatorships. And the Saudis have the funds to interfere in US politics and sponsor their advocates in US politics.

    Syria needs to be cordoned off and Turkey and Iraq the main transit countries of the al-qaeda armies need to be shored up in order to sequester the terrorist at the borders. They have recently shot a turkish police officer and set a control post on the Turkish border alight.

    The terrorist fighters do not recognise Syria anyway, but see it in terms of a supraislamic state named Levant including Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, South Turkey, Israel and parts of Iran.

    Well, we need to reinforce order in Syria and this we can only do by having some very tough words with the Saudis and no one else.

    Any further inflammation to the conflict in Syria will endanger the Russian Caucasus regions, since not a few terrorist fighters in Syria originate from their and Turkey is playing with the fire in the Northern Caucasus.

    If weapons are supplied to anyone, this would be the current Syrian regime. Israel has to see that for its very existence, it is paramount to join Iran, Russia and China in this matter. Everything else would mean supporting the major evil.

    There is no unified or organised Syrian opposition. The fighting power of any secular fighters of the Free Syrian army in terms of manpower is far to low (90 islamist jihadis toward 10 secular opposition).

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