The news from Syria this past week has consistently returned the same general themes. Here are some media reports I’ve been reading and I’ll highlight what I think are some key points with some commentary.
The New York Times article, “Rebel Arms Flow Is Said to Benefit Jihadists in Syria” notes:
Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats.
Clarissa Ward of 60 Minutes (new Lara Logan I guess) provided a rather unremarkable post from her trip inside the Syrian resistance. A brave journey but the report doesn’t really reveal much that has not already been covered. She does interview a jihadi leader in Syria but this was no PBS Frontline Ghaith Abdul-Ahad documentary.
The best article come from the The Guardian in their post “Syria dispatch: Rebel fighters fear the growing influence of their ‘Bin Laden’ faction.” If you are going to read one article on the Syrian resistance and its issues, I recommend this one. First, the article notes the FSA has had enough of the jihadists.
“Libyans”, muttered the rebel Free Syria Army leader under his breath, shooting the men a dirty look. “We don’t want these extremist people here. Look at them; we didn’t have this style in Syria – who is this? Bin Laden?”
Second, here’s the real danger – jihadists are uniting more than the FSA.
After more than a month of secret meetings, leaders of Islamist fighters – including the heavyweight Farouq Brigade that operates mainly in Homs province and influential Sukour al-Sham brigade of Idlib – have formed the “Front to Liberate Syria”.
“We are proud of our Islamism and we are Islamists. We do not want to show it in a slogan because we might not live up to the responsibility of Islam,” said the leader of the Front, Abu Eissa. “But we want a state with Islamic reference and we are calling for it.”
Interesting, so they don’t want to be called Islamists, Salafists or jihadists? They instead want to focus on local issues and institution of Sharia governance. Sound familiar?
Third, moderate secularists in Syria are worried about jihadists in Syria.
The Sunday Telegraph accompanied the head of the Free Syrian Army Supreme Military Council, General Mustafa al-Sheikh as he moved the FSA’s command centre from Turkey to inside Syria. They travelled nervously through Idlib’s countryside, in cars with blacked out windows, heavily armed, and with their rifles locked and loaded.
“It’s not because of the regime that we are carrying weapons. It’s because we are afraid of being attacked by the jihadists,” an FSA rebel later admitted.
Fourth, foreign fighters bring the cash.
Resistance groups that adopt a more overtly Islamist hue are finding it easier to attract financial support from abroad. Religious fighting groups are the prime beneficiaries of money and weapons donated by the government of Qatar, as well by wealthy businessmen and religious leaders in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia.
Foreign fighters from the Gulf brought lots of cash to Iraq. For a breakdown of foreign fighter donations upon arrival in Iraq, see this chart from my past research. The columns show what foreign fighters from each country contributed as a donation (first 2 columns), total cash on hand (second 2 columns) and what they had on hand in Syria (last 2 columns). The money data is confusing so read here, here, and here if you want more explanation of the Iraq foreign fighter records. Bottom Line: If you want cash, get a Saudi recruit.
Here are my thoughts:
- The Syrian resistance is not making significant gains against the Syrian regime. After an initial flurry of success, the fight in many places appears to be at a stalemate. This pseudo stalemate has resulted in….
- An increase in foreign fighters, most of whom are jihadists. These fighters come from both the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa and provide needed manpower, weapons and …..
- Money. Not only are foreign fighters bringing resources with them, but wealthy donors from Qatar and Saudi Arabia are backing the jihadists resulting in them expanding their influence in certain sectors and in many ways outpacing the Free Syria Army (FSA).
- The FSA needs the support of the foreign fighters and the Gulf – weapons, manpower, and experience – but fractures continue to emerge. FSA elements are now as worried about fighting the emerging jihadists in the country as they are about fighting the Assad regime. This will distract the FSA from overthrowing the government, extend the revolution and result in even more foreign fighters being inspired and migrating to Syria.
- Lastly, while the FSA can control certain sectors of cities like Aleppo, they still lack heavy weapons and remain completely vulnerable from the sky.
The U.S. remains largely on the sidelines. Reports suggest the U.S. is providing non-military aid to the Syrian resistance. However, the U.S. fears providing much needed heavy weapons to Syria’s rebels as these weapons might have the potential of falling into the hands of terrorists operating in Syria. So the U.S. and the West remain largely on the sidelines while donors from Qatar and Saudi Arabia back jihadist groups that continue to grow in Syria. Essentially the fear that something might go wrong in the future (Terrorists getting U.S. weapons) results in the U.S. not playing a role in Syria and surrendering influence in a post-Assad Syria to those with the biggest wallets (The Gulf), while ignoring the other awful future scenario – an uncontested jihadi enclave in Syria threatening Israel to the west, undermining Iraqi stability to the east, and operating a safe haven projecting violence against the West globally.
The U.S. election continues to put the decision to further support to the Syrian resistance in delay. The Obama administration, once criticized for intervening in Libya, likely fears getting involved in another unruly conflict (Syria) before an election and after the death of an Ambassador in Libya. If the Obama administration wins a second term, will they begin dedicating more support to the overthrow of Assad? If so, the decision and support could come in as little as 30 days potentially.
Meanwhile, the Romney campaign has gone all in on backing the Syrian resistance despite being part of the party that only a year ago criticized U.S. intervention in Libya. If Romney wins, his administration wouldn’t take office or likely make any substantive move before February. If they did decide to intervene in February, would the FSA be able to hold out? Would the FSA be completely eclipsed by the emerging jihadists in that four month period? Maybe so.
Regardless of which campaign wins, it seems to me the most useful action the U.S. could support, engineer, participate in is the institution of a No Fly Zone. This would help put the resistance on level footing (closer) with the Assad regime and plays to the strengths of the U.S. and West as a whole.
So, the question is up to you, what do you think – cast your vote here and the final results will be published early next week. Thanks to all those that have already voted.