After a White House announcement that it will provide military help to the Syrian rebels, the CIA will soon be delivering small arms to the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syria Army (FSA) through Turkey and Jordan. The FSA is the only one of the 12 rebel groups that is not Islamist (excluding one group that is an offshoot of a Kurdish terrorist group).
Is this the last chance to build up a third alternative to Assad and the Islamist rebels or is it too late?
The provision of anti-aircraft missiles has been ruled out, while the decision on anti-tank missiles has yet to be made. The strongest political force within the opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood and the strongest fighting force is the 7-10,000-strong Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate. Al-Nusra members have already said they will attack the West later, so the worry about arms falling into their hands is completely reasonable.
The CIA says that the Syrian rebels are more clearly divided along ideological lines now and the leadership has coalesced in recent months. Deputy National Security Advisor Benjamin Rhodes confidently said the U.S. is able to deliver arms into moderate hands because, “We have relationships today that we didn’t have six months ago.” This is a positive development, but as the Clarion Project has pointed out, “All of the rebel groups cooperate on some level and weapons are constantly captured, sold or lost in a chaotic war zone.”
According to the Washington Post, Idris and the FSA leadership “favor the creation of a democratic government, although the network includes avowedly Islamist groups.” One such group is the Syrian Liberation Front, but the Post reassures us that they are “moderate” and “pragmatic” Islamists.
In September 2011, even Al-Jazeera noticed that most FSA members are Muslim but “do not fight for Islam and their goals are generally secular.” The moderate figures have always cautioned that the Syrian revolution would be seized by foreign-backed Islamists if the West didn’t support a competing force. In October, FSA founder Riad al-Assad said:
“I talked with America, Europe, and the media that they needed to support the leadership of the FSA … If there is no support for the FSA … 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 … And that’s where we are now.”
Similarly, Christian opposition figure Michel Kilo said, “[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.”
The FSA already had its hands full with the Assad regime and could not afford to take on al-Nusra. In an undated interview, FSA founder Riad al-Assad acknowledged his group’s ideological differences with al-Nusra, but said they are “brothers in Islam” and “nobody should blame us” for supporting it. He praised its performance on the battlefield and said “the majority of people are looking with admiration towards the Al-Nusra Front.”
As well-resourced foreigners and domestic Islamists filled the power vacuum, the FSA became overpowered and splintered. Some units became almost entirely independent. Muslim Brotherhood-aligned units arose. Most frighteningly, a parade of FSA members defected to al-Nusra. In some cases, entire units switched sides. In the Banias area, a FSA unit threatened to leave after its inadequate supply prevented it from stopping a massacre by Assad’s forces.
Al-Nusra began planting operatives in FSA ranks to identify possible recruits. According to one estimate, a fourth of the FSA defected. One former FSA fighter who joined al-Nusra in Idlib explained, “My nephew is in Egypt, he wants to come to Syria to fight but he doesn’t have enough money. Al-Nusra told him: ‘Come and we will even pay your flight tickets.’ He is coming to fight with al-Nusra because he does not have any other way.”
“No one should blame us for joining al-Nusra. Blame the West if Syria is going to become a haven for al-Qaeda and extremists. The West left Assad’s gangs to slaughter us. They never bothered to support the FSA,” said former FSA brigade commander Abu Zeid.
He is aware of what is happening to his cause. He warned, “Qatar is working to establish an Islamic state in Syria.” He ultimately led his 420-man unit in the Damascus area to al-Nusra’s side, arguing that it is worth dealing with al-Nusra’s strict control in exchange for adequate supplies and money with which to take care of his family.
The Islamists are even setting up administration in the rebel-held portions of Syria. Al-Nusra controls almost 90% of the oil wells and is trying to install Sharia law. It has set up propaganda outlets in Deir al-Zour. The Muslim Brotherhood is opening offices and prints 10,000 copies of its new bi-monthly newsletter.
Immediately after Al-Nusra publicly declared its allegiance to Al-Qaeda, the FSA rejected the group. It said there was never a decision “at the command level to coordinate with al-Nusra” (a denial that seems to contradict Riad al-Assad’s earlier interview). While it is true that FSA units had cooperated with al-Nusra previously against their common adversary, the FSA had also violently clashed with the terrorist group.
The first order of business of any U.S. strategy must be to bolster the FSA leadership so it can assert command over its ranks and marginalize the Islamists. Circumstances may have required tactical alliances before, but U.S. aid must be conditioned on the severing of ties with Islamists.
This process may already be in the works. In April, it was reported that rebels were being trained by U.S. operatives in Jordan. The objective is to “build around a dozen units totaling some 10,000 fighters to the exclusion of radical Islamists.” The Jordanian government is an enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood and should be embraced as a more reliable ally than Qatar, Turkey or Saudi Arabia.
The second order of business must be to help secularist moderates take control of the Syrian National Coalition. If necessary, a separate moderate-dominated body must be assembled.
Thus far, Turkey and Qatar have led because the U.S. has declined to. One secular Kurdish opposition leader said, “Turkey supports the Islamists in Syria and puts them out front.” The Islamist rebels even excluded the FSA from a joint command center in Turkey.
Kamal al-Labwani, a secular-democratic opposition figure, complains, “The Brotherhood leads all the decision-making in the Coalition … they buy the other members thanks to the money they receive in Doha and Ankara.” The Clarion Project interviewed al-Labwani in April 2012.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood helped Ghassan Hitto become the interim prime minister. As the Clarion Project documented at the time, Hitto had a long relationship with the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood, and U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, despite his admitted ignorance of Hitto, praised him. Some secular opposition leaders like al-Labwani refused to even vote, viewing his selection as a Muslim Brotherhood/Qatari coup.
The FSA refuses to accept Hitto’s leadership and publicly confronted the Brotherhood. Its Joint Command issued an open letter saying, “We hold you [Muslim Brotherhood] responsible for delaying victory of the revolution and the fragmentation of the opposition.”
Kilo, al-Labwani and the other secularists formed a new bloc of secular liberal Sunnis and the minorities that make up 30% of Syria named the Union of Syrian Democrats. If united, they would likely overpower the Islamists politically. When al-Labwani was asked if its 250 members were conspiring against the Brotherhood, he answered:
“If the Muslim Brotherhood are opposed to the construction of a civil state, this group is directed against them. If they support this project, they are our allies … Our problems with the Muslim Brotherhood is that they say one thing and do another … they say they want a civil state, but in practice, they don’t.”
One of the new entries into the Coalition was supposed to be Sufi Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, who has been described as the second-most influential cleric in Syria. He criticizes the U.S. for its “leaving of the Syrian file to the regional powers.” At the last minute, the Brotherhood blocked his appointment even after he was confirmed.
The U.S., United Arab Emirates (which has called for an anti-Brotherhood coalition) and, ironically, Saudi Arabia joined the moderate bloc’s demand that 30 new members be accepted into the 60-member National Coalition in order to decrease Islamist influence. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia reportedly even threatened to cut off support for the Coalition. It agreed to add 14 members from the moderate bloc, 14 members from other activist groups and 15 members linked to the FSA.
The assembly of a moderate leadership would be a setback for the Islamists and for Bashar Assad. Allawites, pro-Assad Sunnis and other minorities saw what happened in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was overthrown. They have every reason to believe they’ll be persecuted if Assad falls. If there is ever to be peace in Syria, it will require a moderate government with Christian, Allawite and secular Sunni leaders to protect these at-risk minorities.
The other concern is sheer anarchy as the war drags on. According to the Institute for the Study of War, only the FSA Supreme Military Council is “currently the only organization that could serve to fill the security vacuum left.” A provisional government must also be chosen that is respected by the FSA and the opposition moderates.
Finally, the West must try to hasten the day when the locals go to war with al-Nusra.
This always happens, most memorably in Iraq. The Sunni tribes of Iraq turned against Al-Qaeda and even allied with U.S. forces to kick the terrorists out of the country. Already, FSA units have battled with al-Nusra. There is talk of a Syrian tribal alliance against al-Nusra. In Deir al-Zour, tribal leaders fought to try to stop its terrorists from entering. In Hasakah Province, locals twice protested al-Nusra and were shot at. Locals noticeably ignore Sharia prohibitions on cigarettes and requirements that females wear headscarves and don’t want them imposed.
Any U.S. strategy to support Syrian rebels must be based on defeating Al-Nusra and the Islamist forces as a whole. Bashar Assad’s advances should be stopped, but the next step shouldn’t be his removal—it must be the sidelining of the Islamists. The secular opposition and the FSA leadership understand that all of the Islamists, not just al-Nusra, are their opponents—but does the Obama Administration?
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on Fox News.