When the focus in the United States shifted towards possible American air strikes to degrade the Syrian regime’s capacity to use chemical weapons, the armed Syrian opposition was criticised or dismissed from a variety of perspectives.
The air-strike debate is now paused, after the US and Russia agreed on a way to eliminate the chemical weapons peacefully. But the debate highlighted certain misconceptions that malign the entire armed opposition as Al Qaeda.
The crude Islamophobia at work is unmistakable. A notorious viral video circulated by the right-wing Tea Party movement purports to show serving American military personnel, in uniform, holding placards over their faces with messages such as: “Obama, don’t deploy me to fight your war for Al Qaeda in Syria.”
Such assertions are hardly restricted to anonymous videos or fringe figures. Republican Senator Ted Cruz, a rising star on the American right, summarised this misapprehension in a Washington Post article saying a reason he would vote against President Barack Obama’s requested (now suspended) authorisation for the use of force in Syria is that: “We should never give weapons to people who hate us, and the United States should not support or arm Al Qaeda terrorists.”
On both the American left and right, it is widely assumed that the primary beneficiaries of American strikes against regime targets would be Al Qaeda, and that any effort to provide aid to rebels will similarly merely boost jihadists.
After the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the growth of an Islamophobic narrative in American popular culture, the working assumption now seems to be that armed non-governmental Arab Sunni Muslims are probably either Al Qaeda or in league with it.
In policy circles, this sentiment is echoed by a far more subtle misreading of the situation through research that takes into account mainly open-source materials such as online videos and statements. Observing the war at a distance and focusing only on the self-promoting multimedia put out by various groups – which compete for aid from extremist, wealthy private donors, and seek radicalised recruits from abroad – often leads to an exaggerated sense of the role of the most extreme groups in Syria’s conflict.
It can also promote a misunderstanding of the real belief systems operative among the fighters on the ground, particularly the rank-and-file, and the actual relationship between such rebel groups. The result is almost invariably an underestimation of non-jihadist forces and their effectiveness and an overestimation of the jihadists.
A third dismissive attitude is simply driven by “Middle East fatigue”. This sense holds that “we” don’t or can’t know who “they” (the Syrian opposition) are, and therefore it is folly to arm or support any of “them”. This sentiment reflects a willingness to throw up one’s hands in despair of ever understanding what Middle Easterners say and think, or why.
This means, in effect, that large sections of American opinion have, in one way or another, swallowed the line promoted by the Damascus dictatorship since the days of the unarmed protests, that Syria is under attack by a gang of foreign-led, Al Qaeda terrorists.
The Assad regime worked very hard to ensure that peaceful protests turned into an armed movement and that the subsequent conflict turned sectarian in nature. The regime, in so far as it can promote this impression and in some cases reality, is mainly confronting Al Qaeda-related groups. And for a combination of reasons – not least of them neglect by western and Arab states of the non-jihadist opposition groups – in parts of the country this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This trend is being reversed to some extent but more needs to be done to deprive Bashar Al Assad of what he has always wanted. While, in the long run, he has little hope of prevailing throughout the country, his preferred enemy is Al Qaeda because they simply cannot win. Salafist-jihadist groups have a long history of self-defeat, most recently in Iraq, by indulging in overreaching, excessive violence and alienating potential allies and constituents because of their unremitting extremism.
The Al Qaeda-related groups in Syria recently split into two opposed factions and their areas of dominant influence are restricted to certain parts of the north and the east of the country. At least one of those factions, the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”, is already repeating almost all the mistakes that destroyed Al Qaeda in Iraq. They are now thoroughly despised by both the public and other insurgents in the areas where they operate. There is a golden opportunity to exploit this but that cannot be done without bolstering their nationalistic rivals.
In the south, where the most strategic and dynamic part of the war is now situated, the battle is being led largely by various forms of Syrian nationalists willing to turn their guns against both the regime and Al Qaeda – hence intensive western and Arab support for non-jihadist groups is essential.
The question of American military strikes aside, both the West and the Arab states have an urgent interest in supporting these groups to simultaneously combat both a murderous dictatorship and armed extremists who are at least as dangerous. On the ground, the opportunity is ripe for such an expanded programme. But as long as westerners think that Syria is trapped in a binary between Mr Al Assad and Al Qaeda, resistance to such a programme will remain widespread and crippling.