The U.S. is sending hundreds of million of dollars to them, and U.S. allies are rallying in support of them, but who, exactly, are Syria’s so-called “moderates” and how much longer can they avoid being sucked into the radical extremism taking hold of the Middle East?
By Catherine Shakdam
President George W. Bush declared his “war on terror” in shortly after 9/11, using an address to a joint session of Congress and the American people to call on the world to either side with America or face the repercussions. Yet, almost 14 years later, the Middle East and the world remain a far more dangerous and unstable place than ever before.
“Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” Bush said. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”
While the U.S. largely sees its fight as moral and just, there are many who argue that terror and Islamic radicalism have been utilized as pawns in a game that powers continue to play.
Marwa Osman, a political analyst and lecturer at Lebanese International University in Beirut, told MintPress News, “The Middle East has devolved into a series of violent conflicts. Such violence can be directly traced back to the U.S. and its irresponsible foreign policies.”
“The simple fact that groups such as ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] in Syria have sprung on stronger than ever speaks volumes of America’s war on terror. Many would say that terror has become a convenient cover for imperialism.”
Indeed, America’s war on terror has expanded far beyond what anyone could have predicted. From the shores of Libya to Pakistan, and throughout Syria, Iraq and Yemen, the U.S. military has actively engaged all those it’s labelled as its enemies. Syria, in particular, has been center-stage to a bitter and complicated battle of wills, in which experts argue that asymmetric warfare has been used and abused to serve U.S. geopolitical interests, feeding extremism rather than destroying it.
Wherever the U.S. has intervened, either directly or indirectly, via military aid or military deployment — in Pakistan, Libya and especially Syria — terror has arisen.
Speaking to Russia Today (RT) in October, William Engdhal, an award-winning geopolitical analyst and strategic risk consultant, branded America’s strategy in Syria and the broader region a political sham. He asserted that Washington has simply been wielding terror as a new weapon of war.
“They [the U.S. government] toppled Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, they set off the wave of Arab Spring color revolutions throughout the Arab world to reorganize the entire structure of the region to the advantage of the US military position vis-à-vis China and Russia, fundamentally,” Engdhal told RT.
Though warnings have been many, funding to Syria has nevertheless increased steadily. In June 2012, the U.S. State Department reportedly allocated $15 million in “non-lethal aid” for civilian opposition groups in Syria, alongside distribution of military equipment, including assault rifles, anti-tank rocket launchers and other ammunition.
In April 2013, the United States confirmed it had set up a $70 million program in Jordan “that is training the kingdom’s special forces to identify and secure chemical-weapons sites across Syria should the regime fall and the wrong rebels look like getting their hands on them,” as reported in The Economist. That same month, the Obama administration also promised to double non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition, bringing the total to $250 million.
The Syrian National Coalition confirmed this month that it received a direct payment of $6 million from the U.S. for its war efforts against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
As the Middle East has become a broken puzzle of conflicting agendas and political mindgames, Syria has been left to burn under the fires of radicalism, plagued by ISIS militias, while U.S.-backed opposition — Washington’s self-proclaimed “moderates” — seek to overturn Assad’s rule.
Four years into the Arab Spring movement, the identities, motivations and intentions of those Washington has fought alongside to bring down Assad remain clouded in smoke. One question continues to haunt experts and politicians: Who are Syria’s so-called “moderates,” like the Free Syrian Army, which Washington has channelled millions of dollars to?
The Syrian jigsaw
Keen to reiterate his utmost dedication to seeing through the fall of Assad in Syria, President Obama expounded upon America’s “war policy” — or, one could say, tactic — in Syria during his closing speech at the NATO Summit in September and last week’s State of the Union Address.
“In Iraq and Syria, American leadership – including our military power – is stopping ISIL’s advance. Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group,” Obama said in his Jan. 20 State of the Union Address.
“We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism … And, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.”
His phrasing indicating Washington’s support for “a moderate opposition in Syria” has stirred controversy and given way to a great divide.
Four years have passed since Syrians took to the streets to demand an end to Assad’s rule, and the country’s political waters have become murkier and much harder to maneuver. Those pro-democracy activists and members of the once dissolved, but now reformed, Syrian National Council (SNC), a group that called on the U.S. and other Western allies to support their revolutionary efforts, have long since faded into the chaos of conflicting agendas, their voices drowned by the drums of war and fast-changing political realities.
While the SNC ambitioned to transition Syria from an autocratic presidency to a modern civil state as smoothly as possible, those ideals were challenged by the militias on the ground, organized under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, which fought face to face with the Syrian armed forces.
If Syria’s cry for freedom in 2011 rang out untethered to anything but the fulfilment of this simple, yet powerful ambition, violence, state repression and armed opposition steered Syria’s revolution onto a dangerous path, in which sectarianism and radicalism have added layers of opacity.
“After two years of brutal and barbaric sectarian warfare, the Syrian rebellion has seen an even greater hardening of sectarian attitudes among Syrian opponents of Assad and his regime, which is dominated by members of the minority Alawite sect,” Jamie Dettmer wrote for the Daily Beast in September.
“They [pro-democracy activists] were appalled at the rise of the jihadists and their cruelty, worried by the strength of Islamist factions among the rural fighters who are the backbone of the militias. The center did not hold.”
Who are these moderates?
“I think there was a pretty good idea at one time who the moderates were. There are certainly moderate groups advocating a negotiated democratic solution to Syria’s problems outside Syria. Do they have sway inside the country now?” said Gary Grappo, former U.S. ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman and an expert with the Washington Institute, a Middle East policy group based in Washington, to MintPress.
According to data collected by Combating Terrorism Center, as of 2013, there were an estimated 1,200 armed opposition groups in Syria, commanding between 80,000 to 320,000 fighters. “The SMC [Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army] has provided wildly varying estimates of the total number of fighters in its member groups. In June 2013, Idris [Gen. Idris] claimed to control 80,000 fighters, but days later an SMC representative insisted that the true figure is 320,000,” the report read.
Many of the groups are small and operate on a local level, but a number have emerged as powerful forces with affiliates across the country and have formed alliances with other groups that share a similar agenda. Among the most prominent is the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, a faction affiliated with and acting as an umbrella to sub-groups with strong “Islamist” undertones, such as the Martyrs of Syria Brigades, the Northern Storm Brigade and the Ahrar Souriya Brigade.
In her March 2013 report, “The Free Syrian Army,” for the Institute for the Study of War, Elizabeth O’Bagy describes how the SMC, also referred to as the FSA, has 30 members, six representing each of five “fronts” in Syria: Northern (Aleppo and Idlib); Eastern (Raqqa, Deir al-Zour and Hassaka); Western (Hama, Latakia and Tartus); Central (Homs and Rastan); and Southern (Damascus, Daraa and Suwayda).
While the FSA has been keen to assert its leadership over what O’Bagy describes as a loose coalition, it seems clear that SMC/FSA-aligned brigades maintain their own identities, agendas and commands. Some have worked with known Islamic groups such Ahrar al-Sham and al-Qaida-linked jihadists.
With more questions than answers surrounding the term “moderates,” Obama nevertheless intends to pump a half-billion dollars into arming and training those elusive moderate rebel fighters as they work to depose Assad, who Washington has long identified as an illegitimate leader.
“The problem,” said Osman, a professor of Politics and International Relations, “is that turning the faltering Free Syrian Army, a collection of disbanded and often antagonistic factions, into a force capable of beating not only Assad’s army, but ISIS, would require a considerable war effort — much more than a few million dollars and military training,” said Osman, who lectures on Politics and International Relations and has a particular focus on radical movements in the Middle East.
“The FSA lacks political cohesion and leadership,” she continued. “More dangerous yet, they care nothing for democracy. Their ambitions are more aligned with ISIS than Western powers care to admit, or are willing to admit, for that matter.”
Damascus-based blogger Abdo Roumani argues that Syria’s descent into radicalism was brought about by Syrians themselves, as factions sought to promote their own rise to power instead of working toward Syrians’ dream of freedom.
Speaking with MintPress, Roumani explained how his country unravelled alongside sectarian and ethnic lines, betrayed by the unscrupulous leadership of the SNC, ultimately leading former “moderates” into the arms of radicals.
“We, at the time, defined moderates by their ability to introduce a better vision of the post-al-Baath Syria. Syria has changed so much since 2011, and so has our definition of moderates. In comparison with jihadist groups or separatist Kurds, many will look at the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition and Free Syrian Army and just take it for granted that these people are moderate, but they’re not,” Roumani said.
“The Western-backed opposition is largely responsible for perverting the course of the early protest movement and consequently failing it,” Roumani continued, adding that protesters’ initial calls for freedom and democracy were quickly swallowed up, which destroyed any hope of meaningful reform.
“That movement hit a wall long before the authorities oppressed it. It was over when most protesters turned to political violence and forgot why they were protesting in the first place.”
Four years into Syria’s revolution most experts agree that Syria’s “moderates” are anything but moderate. Yet Western democracies under American leadership continue to rally to support their fight against Assad. Since Assad has been identified as the primary target, millions of dollars will continue to fuel Syria’s rebel militias.
As Dettmer wrote, “Most of the militias that are effective fighting formations and have scored off-and-on successes on the battlefield against ISIS are not moderate by Western standards. Most are Islamist to varying degrees.”
Past mistakes and covert agendas?
Watching Syria grapple with Islamic radicalism, it has become virtually impossible not to draw parallels with Afghanistan — especially since both share the common denominators of the U.S. and terror. Both nations have seen their compatriots fall victim to radicalism, sold on an ideology of terror which has ravaged formerly tight communities and destroyed whatever semblance of national unity they once enjoyed. And just as warlords fell under the sway of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Syrian moderates have swapped allegiances in favor of factions whose ideologies are aligned with that of al-Qaida.
“With no clear chain of command or defined ideology to bind scattered Free Syrian Army brigades, militants have continued to suffer a steady stream of defections to better-funded rivals — among which are the infamous Jabhat al-Nusra [the Nusra Front] and its rival, ISIS,” emphasized Roumani, the blogger.
Leith Fadel, a journalist for Al-Masdar News, reported on Jan. 9 that 3,000 Free Syrian fighters had defected to ISIS. Fadel also provided a breakdown of the various Free Syrian Army sub-factions which chose to part ways with the opposition group.
In a report for New Eastern Outlook this month, Tony Cartalucci, a geopolitical analyst, wrote:
“It was reported recently that some 3,000 so-called ‘moderate rebels’ of the ‘Free Syrian Army’ had defected to the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS). While not the first time so-called ‘moderates’ have crossed over openly to Al Qaeda or ISIS, it is one of the largest crossovers that has occurred.
With them, these 3,000 fighters will bring weapons, cash, equipment, and training provided to them by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United States, the UK, and perhaps most ironic of all in the wake of the recent terror attack in Paris, France. Indeed, ISIS and Al Qaeda’s ranks continue to swell amid this insidious network of ‘terror laundering’ that is only set to grow.”
Commonalities between Syria and Afghanistan, particularly the seemingly exponential rise of Islamic radicalism, have led many experts, including William Engdhal, to question Washington’s intentions in the region. Engdhal hypothesized that America’s war on terror may, in fact, be a manifestation of America’s imperialistic ambitions in the Middle East.
“Details leaking out suggest that ISIS and the major military ‘surge’ in Iraq – and less so in neighboring Syria – is being shaped and controlled out of Langley, Virginia, and other CIA and Pentagon outposts as the next stage in spreading chaos in the world’s second-largest oil state, Iraq, as well as weakening the recent Syrian stabilization efforts,” Engdhal wrote in a June op-ed for RT.
However, Grappo, the former U.S. ambassador to Oman, disagrees. He maintains that these allegations of covert dealings and black ops have no credible substance, and he is adamant that the U.S. is not knowingly funding radicals to manifest its political will in Damascus.
“There is very little credible evidence to support the claim [that Washington is playing terror as an asymmetric weapon of war]. The proliferation of congressional oversight committees, especially in the wake of the torture report, as well as the diffident support given even to moderates up to this point make it very difficult to believe such claims,” he told MintPress.
Yet Grappo did concede that tactical mistakes and oversights have occurred. “That weapons and/or other equipment given to moderates ended up in the wrong hands through either botched execution, former moderates who later defected to extremist groups, or simply inexpert management of resources by the moderates is not only possible but likely, however,” he noted.
“The term ‘political advancement’ is weak and very worn. The only viable – however risky – course of action for the U.S. is support for moderates, which it really hasn’t done effectively at all to date. There is no other rational course of action given U.S. policy.”
As experts and officials continue to spout off allegations and counter-allegations, Syria’s downward spiral and unraveling continues to gain traction. Yet it remains open to debate who this devolution benefits most.
© 2015 MINT Press
About Catherine Shakdam: Catherine is a political analyst and reporter for MintPress focusing on the Middle East and the rise of radical movements. The Associate Director of the Beirut Center for Middle Eastern Studies, she has contributed her analyses to the Middle East Monitor, Foreign Policy Association, Your Middle East, IslamistGate, Majalla, ABNA, Open Democracy, International Policy Digest, Eurasia Review and many more.