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 Guardian recently 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.
*Ribal al-Assad is Director of the Organization for Democracy and Freedom in Syria.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.