by Wayne White
The outcome of the struggle now playing out over whether to smite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime militarily for its purported use of chemical weapons could define the future of the conflict within Syria more broadly. Much of the hesitation toward — even outright opposition to — military action relates to vivid recollections of US/UK deceit before the 2003 Iraq War, more generalized war weariness, competing economic priorities amidst weak economies, and political divisiveness in the US. Nonetheless, another deep-seated source of disquiet among US elected officials and their constituents, for the past 18 months, has been the rise of Islamic extremists within the Syrian armed opposition.
Although it has become clearer only in that proverbial 20/20 hindsight, there seems to have been a very narrow window of opportunity during which the Syrian opposition’s Western supporters could have initiated a level of arms and training that might have blunted the regime’s revival beginning last Spring without the danger of munitions falling into the hands of Islamic militants (perhaps as narrow as the last few months of 2011). By that time the armed opposition had become sufficiently cohesive to digest a solid flow of foreign military aid while Islamic extremists still comprised a small portion of its combatants.
Yet, that window passed almost unnoticed because of the belief, in part, among so many observers that the rebels seemed to be closing in on the regime without any pressing need for Western arms. So the issue of US or Western supply of munitions to the rebels was not as seriously discussed as it would be later. Instead, the White House was caught amidst one of the early waves of intense pressure for far more direct action, most notably the establishment of some sort of Syrian no-fly zone, from various domestic quarters, the Syrian opposition, and various other parties in the Middle East.
By late January 2012, however, the al-Nusra Front linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq was substantial enough to formally announce its presence among the rebels. A year later, jihadist fighters had become dominant in the forefront of the rebellion. But despite the vigorous contribution of these extremist combatants, in early 2013 the regime forces had regained their footing, and in Spring 2013 took the offensive against the rebels.
In part, the ballooning numbers of militant extremists appear to have filled a vacuum left by less motivated, fragmented, and sometimes corrupt secular opposition militia groups that even alienated certain local populations in northern Syria under rebel control. So, those oppositionists most outspokenly disappointed over the Obama administration’s decision to await an US congressional vote have been the same ones with a faltering impact on the course of the fighting inside the country — those so-called “vetted” rebels affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
An inability to hold their own as well in the face of the Syrian military or against competing Islamic militant factions may have been as important a cause of the decline of more moderate groups as delays in receiving Western munitions. In addition, however, mounting rage over the regime’s widespread brutality and destruction doubtless has radicalized many former moderates. And, admittedly, the greater availability of weapons and ammunition among extremist formations including the latest entry from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which formally declared its presence in 2013, reportedly has caused quite a few moderate fighters to gravitate toward these al-Qaeda affiliates (with munitions being provided by Qatar in particular, despite periodic shortages from that source as well).
For Americans, the high-profile role of al-Qaeda associated extremists in the Syrian resistance has had a greater impact because of the long shadow cast by 9/11 and ongoing high levels of concern about al-Qaeda in its various incarnations. A large body of negative reactions (including via social media) to the proposal to respond militarily to the Syrian regime’s alleged CW atrocity cite the al-Qaeda affiliations of rebel combatant groups. This concern probably will feature prominently in the upcoming US congressional debate over the matter.
Indeed, the extremist factor effectively stymied belated US and Western interest in providing arms. President Obama reportedly turned down a proposal to do so in August 2012, and perhaps again at the end of that year. Then, although the administration finally seemed ready to provide arms and training to relatively moderate “vetted” rebels in spring 2013, the implementation seems to have been slow and spotty, with discussions continuing into July, and most designated groups still having not received them last month.
Rebel extremism, along with other leading concerns about the planned military strike (such as its scope), will feature in the upcoming US congressional debate. Should considerable doubts emerge over the extremist nature of many leading rebel formations, even if military action is approved, the US provision of munitions to the opposition could come under greater scrutiny. Should approval for a strike be withheld, much the same might happen. If so, the Syrian regime’s hand would be strengthened that much more, and the continued dominance among the rebels of the most extreme elements almost certainly would be ensured — even reinforced.