Fears are growing that Western democracies’ failure to support the Syrian opposition is creating an opportunity for jihadist groups to exploit the uprising and possibly help shape the post-Assad political settlement.
“The arms flowing to the [Free Syrian Army], at least from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are going to Islamist members of the opposition, many of whom are strongly opposed to the US and could push a future Syrian government in dangerous directions,” writes Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning of the US State Department.
“The longer the conflict rages, the more likely revenge killings will turn a revolution into a sectarian civil war that cannot be staunched even by a democratic political transition and the more chance al-Qaeda has to infiltrate and co-opt it,” she warns.
Slaughter’s comments echo a fresh call to arm Syria’s opposition by a former Secretary of State.
“In the Middle East we must patiently use our aid, expertise and influence to support the creation of inclusive democratic institutions,” writes Condoleezza Rice:
The fundamental problem in the region is the absence of institutions that can bridge the Sunni-Shia divide, and protect the rights of women and minorities. Even as we make necessary immediate choices – including arming the Syrian rebels – we must insist upon inclusive politics. The US cannot afford to stand aside; regional powers will bring their own agendas that could exacerbate confessional divisions.
“In this young century, the 9/11 attacks, the global financial crisis and the unrest in the Arab world have struck at the heart of vital US interests,” she argues. “If Americans want the tectonic plates of the international system to settle in a way that makes the world safer, freer and more prosperous, the US must overcome its reluctance to lead.”
While Western powers are reportedly providing communications equipment and other forms of non-lethal assistance to opposition groups, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are channeling weapons to radical Islamist factions.
“Al Qaeda in Syria puts our interests at risk because if they overrun chemical weapons stockpiles, that would be a major risk to the United States,” said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “If they could also secure other weapons that would perhaps down aircraft somewhere else in the world, it could also be used.”
There are justifiable reasons to be concerned about both illiberal Islamist and more extreme jihadist influences in opposition ranks, writes Shashank Joshi, a Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). But he believes the anxiety will prove as unfounded as similar concerns about the reported prevalence of jihadists within the Libyan uprising:
For a start, jihadists don’t have a foreign occupation to mobilise support, like they did in Afghanistan in the 1980s or Iraq more recently. Moreover, the jihadists’ counterparts in Libya – where the sceptics also issued these dark warnings – were trounced in largely free and fair elections. So was Qatar-backed Islamist commander Abdul Hakim Belhaj, whose party failed to win a single parliamentary seat. Of course we should be worried about despotic, sectarian Saudi Arabia pumping in arms – but Arab powers can’t simply hijack a revolution that easily.
“If the presence of abusive rebels and dubious foreign backers was enough to annul the right to rebellion, then virtually every revolution in history would be deemed illegitimate,” says Joshi.
“Large swathes of Syria’s opposition are fighting for a state that is more democratic and humane than that which stands today, and – even if they face steep odds – they deserve, at the very least, our qualified support.”
Western efforts to assist Syria’s opposition have been hindered by its fractiousness, and this week saw the launch of a new Council for the Syrian Revolution in an attempt to forge a united front to Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist regime.
“The brothers have asked me to form a transitional government in Syria and to begin dialogue with the rest of the Syrian opposition,” said Haitham al-Maleh, a former judge.
Maleh is “very credible and well-respected” both within and outside Syria, the SNC’s Radwan Ziadeh told Al Jazeera (above). But he feared this latest initiative would create “more division” among the opposition, while accepting that any government in exile requires more consultations with other groups.
There are many risks to arming Syria’s rebels, Slaughter concedes:
First, becoming enmeshed in Syria could hurt Mr Obama’s re-election chances. Second, sending arms without UN approval would put the US on the wrong side of international law. Third, the US could become tied to the opposition’s fortunes in ways that could inhibit the “rebalancing” toward Asia. Fourth, providing weapons to the FSA risks fuelling the conflict and possibly arming al-Qaeda fighters who are infiltrating Syria. Fifth, providing weapons to the FSA when Iran and Russia are arming the Syrian regime will drag the US into a proxy great power war.
Many officials and observers believe the Obama administration’s Syria policy is working, notes Slaughter, a Princeton University politics professor:
This policy is to squeeze the regime diplomatically and economically; work with expatriate opposition groups to plan for a post-Assad transition; push for UN resolutions against the Assad regime; provide intelligence and communications equipment; and plan for a possible military operation to secure chemical weapons if the regime collapses. The Assad government is weakening; the opposition is controlling more parts of the country and bringing the fight to Aleppo and Damascus.
“But the consequences of this multi-pronged incrementalism could be devastating,” she warns.
“And the longer the conflict rages, the more likely revenge killings will turn a revolution into a sectarian civil war that cannot be staunched even by a democratic political transition and the more chance al-Qaeda has to infiltrate and co-opt it.”
While the world focuses on the violence in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s Kurds buried their internal differences and promptly ejected regime forces from their territory, notes David Pollock, the Kaufman fellow at the Washington Institute.
“This is a major blow to the regime, potentially clearing the northern approaches to Aleppo for opposition forces. But Kurdish relations with the rest of the Syrian opposition remain a deeply divisive issue,” he suggests:
U.S. help in planning for a post-Assad transition should pay urgent attention to deconflicting Arab and Kurdish political claims and aspirations inside Syria. This is every bit as acute an issue as the much more widely recognized Alawite one; the Kurds are about the same percentage of Syria’s total population, and many millions more Kurds in Iraq and Turkey make the involvement of Syria’s neighbors much more likely. At a minimum, working with Turkey, the KRG, and others, the United States should strive to avert violent Turkish-Kurdish or Arab-Kurdish conflict in Syria or on its borders. At the same time, despite its more limited leverage, the United States should urge Baghdad more forcefully to defy Iran, reconcile with the KRG, and abandon support for the Assad regime.
Radwan Ziadeh is a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.