The U.S. Congress has approved the Obama Administration’s plan to train and arm Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State terrorist group. The plan is fraught with danger and the Congress must ensure that five steps are taken to minimize its risks.
1. Create a Secular-Democratic Force
The U.S. must recognize that every existing rebel group, including the much-touted Free Syria Army, includes an Islamist component. It is against Western interests to support Islamist radicals and they are not worthy of American taxpayer money.
The bill “requires that opposition groups be vetted for associations with terrorist groups, Shia militias aligned with or supporting the government of Syria, and groups associated with the government of Iran, including, but not limited to: ISIL [the Islamic State]; Jabhat al Nusrah; other al-Qaeda related groups; and Hezbollah.”
The weak standard is that rebels must not be linked to the Assad regime (which Syrian rebels are not by definition) and Al-Qaeda affiliates, which presumably includes Ahrar al-Sham whose leadership has had high-level Al-Qaeda ties.
Over a dozen of Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders were killed in a suicide bombing recently, presumably carried out by the Islamic State. Leaders of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Front, a coalition of Syrian Islamist rebels, mourned them. Its new leader previously led a Free Syria Army unit.
So who can the U.S. pick as an ally?
The most obvious candidates are the Kurds who have proven so reliable and effective in Iraq. They have defeated Al-Nusra in battle. Kurds also fought Islamist Kurds aligned with Al-Qaeda (the Islamic Kurdish Front), Ahrar al-Sham and the Qatar-backed Ahfad al-Rasoul militia.
“We as Kurds are usually secularists, and the reason for that is the injustice that we suffered through Islamic history, and certainly we would be against any new Caliphate project,” said the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria.
Kurds are only about 10% of the Syrian population so their reach is limited. Other non-Kurdish groups must be assessed.
The aforementioned Islamic Front consists of Salafist forces who want to implement Sharia. It has gotten help from Saudi Arabia, specifically though one of the Front’s members, the Army of Islam (or Jaysh al-Islam). Its leader, Zahran Alloush, is far closer to the Al-Qaeda/Jabhat al-Nusra ideology than what the U.S. stands for.
The Harakat al-Hazm rebels received anti-tank missiles as a group “vetted” and supported by the U.S. and endorsed by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy as a “moderate/secularist faction.” It is about 7,000 strong. An Arab newspaper reports that it is backed by the Muslim Brotherhood (the parent group of Hamas), Qatar and Turkey.
The Syrian Revolutionary Front is 25,000-strong and consists of Free Syria Army remnants. It was touted in Foreign Policy as “the West’s best fighting chance against Syria’s Islamist armies.” Its cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra/Al-Qaeda may be excusable given their common fight against a superior adversary (the Iran-backed Assad regime).
However, its leader, Jamal Marrouf, said in April, “It’s clear that I’m not fighting against Al-Qaeda. This is a problem outside of Syria’s border. I don’t have a problem with anyone who fights against the regime in Syria.”
The Army of the Mujahideen has leaders linked to the Free Syria Army (specifically its founder, Riad Al-Assad) and frames itself as moderate. However, it declared on January 4, “We distance ourselves from any confrontation with our brothers in al-Nusra Front, or any other jihadi faction, whether through direct fighting or in coordination with any faction against them.”
And then there’s the Free Syria Army (FSA), the largest and most moderate rebel group. Former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says its strength is 70-90,000, making it the largest group. Another estimate in December put it at 40,000.
When it was founded by secularist Riad Al-Assad, he warned that Islamic extremists would fill the power vacuum in Syria if the FSA was not materially backed by the West. He says he told the U.S. and Europe that “new groups would appear and the work will fall apart, because then we wouldn’t be able to control what was happening on the ground.
In September 2011, Al-Jazeera reported that most FSA members are Muslim but “do not fight for Islam and their goals are generally secular.” Then his prediction became true. The FSA then became decentralized and Islamists began fighting under the FSA banner.
In one incident, video appeared that showed rebels identifying themselves as FSA with an Al-Qaeda flag behind them. An Al-Nusra “emir” explained last year that the FSA flag is “the flag of infidel secularism” but he fought under the FSA banner anyway.
“I thought we shouldn't declare our animosity to America now. I said, we can be jihadis but raise the flag of the FSA,” he said.
Riad Al-Assad and the FSA were in no position to fight al-Nusra, especially when they were both fighting for their lives against the Assad regime.
In an undated interview, the FSA founder said his group is ideologically at-odds with al-Nusra but “nobody should blame us” for collaborating with it against the common enemy. He called the Al-Qaeda affiliate “brothers in Islam” and said “the majority of people are looking with admiration towards the Al-Nusra Front” because of its battlefield performance.
Al-Nusra’s superior resources attracted rebels and thousands of FSA fighters switched sides. In some cases, entire units defected. One brigade commander said, “No one should blame us for joining al-Nusra. Blame the west if Syria is going to become a haven for al-Qaida and extremists. The West left Assad's gangs to slaughter us. They never bothered to support the FSA.”
The FSA still has significant potential. It had secular beginnings and fought with Al-Qaeda/Al-Nusra, ISIS and the Islamic Front. Its leadership despises the Muslim Brotherhood and said last year that it is “responsible for delaying victory of the revolution and the fragmentation of the opposition.”
The FSA refused to accept the authority of Ghassan Hitto, a figure linked to the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood and backed by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, when he became the interim Prime Minister of the Syrian National Coalition. He had to abruptly resign four months later.
Nonetheless, Islamist components remain within the FSA so any U.S. aid to the loosely-organized group would very likely fall into radical hands.
The Islamist components of the FSA have proven unreliable because Islamists are always closer to each other than they are to the U.S. and the secularists.
A top leader of the Qatar-backed Ahfad al-Rasoul militia was incorporated into the FSA command structure (the now-defunct Supreme Military Council) and then joined ISIS. Another example is when the leader of the Army of Islam, part of the Islamic Front, was a member of the FSA Military Council and quit after the leadership said it’d fight Al-Nusra.
The FSA must exert control over those acting under its banner. A name change may be necessary. The Syrian National Coalition says it is reorganizing the FSA for this purpose. The Supreme Military Council, the body overseeing the FSA (and accused by some FSA officials of favoring the Islamists), has been dissolved.
The U.S. and its allies must condition any aid to the FSA on a major revamping that excludes Islamists. If the FSA is unwilling to do so, then an entirely new force must be created.
The well-resourced secular-democratic force will attract the genuine moderates from all competing groups, maximizing their collective influence. Such a force is also terrifying to the Syrian and Iranian regimes and Hezbollah, as they want Al-Qaeda and ISIS to be the only alternative to Assad.
2. Coalition: Quality Over Quantity
It is vital that any international partners involved in the support to the Syrian rebels share our interests. We must choose quality over quantity in picking our allies.
The secular-democrats of the Syrian opposition have consistently and loudly complained about how Qatar and Turkey are trying to empower Islamists. One secular FSA commander laments that “Qatar is working to establish an Islamic state in Syria.”
When the U.S. worked with Qatar in removing the Qaddafi regime in Libya, Qatar exercised its influence to benefit the Islamist forces. Libya is paying the price today and is experiencing bloody fighting between Islamist and secular forces. The government claims Qatar continues to send arms to Islamist fighters.
Saudi Arabia has agreed to host U.S. training of Syrian rebels. The Saudis oppose the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda, but has been supporting the Salafist group named the Army of Islam (or Jaysh al-Islam), a member of the Islamic Front. As discussed, its leader is only slightly to the left of Al-Qaeda.
The CIA has trained 2-3,000 rebels in Jordan. The Jordanian government is opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and the other Islamists, making it a wise choice of a partner. The FSA is also lobbying the United Arab Emirates for help. The UAE led the call for a regional alliance against the Brotherhood and Iran.
Domestically, the U.S. government must be selective in choosing which groups will serve as liaisons to the Syrian opposition. As mentioned previously, the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood network has played a strong role in promoting Islamist influence among the rebel political leadership.
The now-defunct Syria Support Group had Islamist links. It managed to become the only group licensed by the U.S. to provide material support to the FSA and received at least $12 million in U.S. government aid.
The Syrian Emergency Taskforce organized Senator John McCain’s trip to Syria to meet with FSA commanders. Its leader supports the Islamic Front and his YouTube page indicated strong support for Hamas.
The Syrian American Council sponsored a fundraising tour for terrorism-supporting cleric Sheikh Mohammad Rateb al-Nabulsi. Several of the organization’s officials previously belonged to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
The U.S. should look to secular Syrian-American activists like Col. Nagi Najjar, the U.S. and U.K. liaison officer for FSA founder Riad al-Assad; Ammar Abdulhamid, founder of the Tharwa Foundation; Farid Ghadry, co-founder of the Reform Party of Syria and Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, founder of Save Syria Now and President of the American-Islamic Forum for Democracy.
Europe has similar options. The former leader of the Syrian National Council, secularist Burhan Ghalioun, lives in Paris and said in December 2011that the next Syrian government would cut ties to Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
In September 2011, the Coalition of Secular and Democratic Syrians formed in Paris. Spokesperson Randa Kassis said, “We are all against totalitarianism in any form, and that includes Islamist rule.” Sheikh Ma’shooq al-Khaznawi said “there must be separation of mosque and state” in Syria.
Activists like these can help assemble like-minded activists, inform policy and vet Syrian opposition forces.
3. Support Moderate Political Leadership
The U.S. recognizes the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, but it must also reach out to secularists inside and outside that body. The objective should be to promote their influence, use them to vet rebel forces and encourage the formation of a single bloc so Islamists cannot exploit their divisions.
One such figure is Kamal Al-Labwani, founder of the Syrian Liberal Democratic Union.
He says the rebels should make peace with Israel in exchange for assistance against the Assad regime. He is concerned about the U.S. plan to arm rebels and says that a new Syrian opposition leadership is necessary.
Al-Labwani said in 2012, “There has been no Islamist democratic country in history, and we do not want to try to be the first.”
“This region will not stabilize without a reformation in Islamic culture that creates an Islam compatible with liberal values and modernism and breaks the totalitarian dogmatic Islamist thinking,” he boldly stated.
Another is Michel Kilo, a Christian who is in the Syrian National Coalition and is a founder of the Syrian Democratic Platform. He wrote an article in December 2012 warning that the Syrian revolution was being taken over by foreign-backed Islamists.
“[A democratic] future that felt certain has now become nothing more than a vague promise—which might not be kept by the Islamist groups known for their lies, lust for power and cooperation with foreign powers,” Kilo wrote.
In May 2013, he formed a bloc with al-Labwani named the Union of Syrian Democrats aimed at checking the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence. Ahmad Jarba, leader of the Syrian National Coalition from last summer to this July, is an ally of Kilo’s.
The Syrian opposition figures who oppose Islamism are not on the fringe. They are strong politically and natural allies of the U.S.
4.Win Minority and Tribal Support
Syrian minorities like the Kurds, Christians, Druze and especially the Allawites (from which the regime comes from) do not necessarily like the brutal dictatorship of Bashar Assad, but they are justifiably afraid of what will follow.
The inclusion of these minorities in the Syrian rebel forces is necessary to minimize sectarian violence and tension and to threaten the Assad regime at a later date. It is also beneficial for undermining Islamist influence.
Statistics about Syria’s demographics vary widely but they generally show that about 12% is Allawite, 10% is Christian, 10% is Kurdish and 3% is Druze. That means that 35% of the population would be strongly opposed to Islamism. That percentage does not even include liberal Sunni Arabs.
A coalition that proportionally represents minorities will have an automatic buffer from Islamist influence. If elections are held in Syria, these minorities will again give Islamism’s opponents a demographic advantage right from the start.
The U.S. and Iraqi government learned how much tribes can affect Sunni Arabs. The tribal uprising against Al-Qaeda, called the sahwa, was critical in turning the country around.
ISIS has executed 700 members of a rival tribe in Deir al-Zor province. Tribal leaders that have fought to try to stop al-Nusra terrorists from coming into their communities and there has long been talk of a Syrian tribal alliance against al-Nusra.
Al-Nusra knows this is coming and is worried about it. In July 2013, an al-Nusra “emir” predicted that one-third of the FSA will join a tribal sahwa against them once the regime falls.
“They used to tell us that the FSA will turn to sahwa and fight us, which I thought was an exaggeration…now I know that will happen for sure,” the al-Nusra leader said.
5.Prepare for Political Transition
Plans must be in place for the U.S.-backed rebels to handle administration. One of the factors driving Syrians to ISIS, Al-Nusra and other Islamists is the stability they can bring. If the rebels push back ISIS and Al-Nusra but fail politically or leave a power vacuum, Sharia-instituting Islamists will immediately enter.
The Muslim Brotherhood already began opening offices in the spring of 2013. Its imams began preaching in mosques and 10,000 copies of its bi-weekly newsletter started being regularly distributed. If elections are held in rebel-controlled Syria, the Brotherhood will have a major head-start in organizing.
The U.S. cannot tell Syrians how to vote or overtly endorse individual progressives, but all planning should keep eventual elections in mind. Liberal Syrians who are threatened by Islamists should be constantly consulted with and we should explore opportunities to increase their chances of success.
The West’s plans to arm Syrian rebels must not be based on the “moderate Islamist” myth. Islamism of any brand only incubates the jihadists who threaten us, the human rights abuses we detest and values fundamentally incompatible with our own.
If this distinction is not made, the jihad of “moderate” Islamists will be subsidized with American taxpayer money. We will unnecessarily endanger ourselves and undermine the anti-Islamist progressives whose values are closest to our own.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on Fox News.