Arming the Moderates

Controversy has swirled around President Obama’s Syrian policy. In particular, people have talked a good deal about the need to support the “moderates” opposing Bashar al-Assad. It has been said that the failure to support the “moderates” allowed the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) to expand its power. In light of this discussion, it is interesting to revisit a piece in the New York Times from April 2013 by Ben Hubbard.[1]

According to Hubbard, the rebellion against Assad began among, is led by, and continues to draw most of its support from conservative Sunni Muslims. They were pro-Islamist from the start. In contrast, the supporters of a “democratic” Syria mostly have been “civilian activists, protesters, and aid workers.” Such people played a role in igniting the rebellion, but soon found themselves pushed to the curbside. Instead, the Ahrar al-Sham group and the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front raised soldiers, obtained arms, and launched attacks. Early small successes snowballed into greater successes later on. Rebels armed-up and added more recruits by seizing Syrian army posts, then towns, and then key resources. ISIS represents this pattern carried to an extreme.

Hubbard reported that one moderate rebel military leader had claimed that most Nusra Front recruits had “joined the group for the weapons, not the ideology” and “some left after discovering the al-Qaeda connection.” However, he acknowledged that the Nusra Front fielded the strongest military force in his area and spoke “on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.”

A year and a half ago Hubbard reported that “nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.” Instead, “More than two years of violence have radicalized the armed opposition fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad, leaving few groups that both share the political vision of the United States and have the military might to push it forward.”


A couple of observation and questions.

Islamist jihadis come to fight for ISIS. Why don’t equivalent figures come to fight for a democratic, secular Syria? Rich people and governments arm the Islamist rebels in Syria. Why don’t equivalent figures or governments in other Arab countries arm the supporters of a democratic, secular Syria? Is it because the supporters of secular, democratic government are few and far between in the Arab world? This isn’t to argue that such people don’t exist. Television talk-shows are full of them.

The American conjecture that fighters flow toward the Islamists because they are the ones with the guns, rather than because of ideology, is belied by the many foreign jihadis who have come to Syria and by the growth of ISIS at the expense of the Nusra Front.

Would Western efforts to arm the moderates just lead to the supporters of the Islamists upping their own support?

Would supporting “moderates” sufficiently to bring them to power just create a puppet-government that has no legitimacy with the majority of the Syrian people? One that is scorned by other Arab governments?

Is it possible that “moderates” just don’t want to fight? Maybe they’re just too “moderate.”

[1] “Islamist Rebels Create Dilemma on Syria Policy, NYT, 28 April 2013, A1, A8.


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