Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Doha today for the first meeting of the “Friends of Syria” group since the US announced plans to arm the opposition. But observers anticipate criticism of the decision as too little, too late to affect the fortunes of rebel groups.
“The administration has a big challenge,” said Brookings analyst Michael O’Hanlon. “It’s not clear that a few arms can make much of a difference.”
While the West’s democracies have dithered over providing lethal assistance to the opposition’s moderate factions, radical Islamist groups have received considerable, sustained support from governments and non-state actors in the Gulf.
“Everyone knows we’re going to have to do a lot more and a lot more together, to get rid of Assad,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The question is how to get there. Everybody’s torn.”
“A new weapons shipment to Syrian rebels sent earlier this month by Gulf countries went to one of the extreme Islamist groups, Ahrar al-Sham,” Associated Press reports:
The group is the strongest member of the Syrian Islamist Front, made up of 11 Islamist factions, which is increasingly posing as a parallel to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. …..Activists and residents in areas the group controls describe them as hardcore Islamist. “The regional states, especially the Gulf states…want the arms supply to help (rebels) to score a military victory,” said Mustafa Alani, a Dubai-based expert. “The Americans and the European Union want only to restore balance because they think once you restore balance both parties will be ready to come to the table.”
“Using a mix of intimidation and organization, alliances of Islamist brigades are filling the vacuum in areas where Assad’s army has withdrawn and more secular rebels have failed to provide order, a 10-day visit to rebel-held Syria by Reuters journalists showed:
In Aleppo on June 10, Islamic State of Iraq fighters executed a 15-year-old boy in front of his parents for making a comment they regarded as heretical, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad monitoring group. The Observatory quoted witnesses as saying gunmen whipped the boy, Mohammad Qataa, then brought him to a wooden stand and shot him in the face and neck.
“Whoever curses even once will be punished like this,” witnesses quoted an Islamic State of Iraq member as saying, according to the Observatory report.
“The Islamist groups include al Qaeda affiliates and more moderate partners, so the nature of their rule is complex,” Oliver Holmes and Alexander Dziadosz, report from Raqqa, Syria:
They administer utilities, run bakeries and, in a town near Raqqa, operate a hydroelectric dam. They are also setting up courts and imposing punishments on those judged transgressors.
The United States and other Western powers support the Syrian National Coalition, a group of opposition figures based in Cairo. But the coalition has very little influence on the ground in Syria, so locals are increasingly turning to the Islamists as their best alternative to chaos.
Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham aim to create an Islamic mini-state in rebel-held territory, and Jabhat al-Nusra ultimately envisions a wider Islamic caliphate. U.S. and European security officials say Jabhat al-Nusra is being financed by wealthy families from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
“Of all the public services the rebels have set up, the Sharia Authorities, which function as a rudimentary justice system, are the most central. They help provide essential services and are the closest thing rebel-held areas have to a government,” the Reuters journalists note:
The authorities are generally staffed by older men from the area. Community leaders hold discussions and appoint members from their own ranks, some members said. Each of the area’s largest fighting brigades sends representatives, who often work as civilians at the body. Islamist brigades tend to be represented much more heavily than secular groups, both because of their relative size and prowess and because they were among the first to get involved in setting them up.