If you’re like me, you’ve gotten increasingly frustrated with the constant mention of “the rebels” in reports about Syria, without much context about who they are. It reminds me of some 1980s action movie in which generic “rebels” serve as some sort of MacGuffin for the hero to blow stuff up. Now that President Obama has decided to arm the rebels, it’s even more imperative that Americans have a good idea of the different rebel groups in Syria, which unfortunately are dominated by Islamists.
Today, the Wall Street Journal reports:
The move is an about-face by Mr. Obama, who last year blocked a proposal backed by then-Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to arm the rebels. At the time, Mr. Obama voiced concerns that arms could end up in the hands of Islamists battling Mr. Assad.
But administration officials who favored providing arms said the White House believes it has a clearer picture today of the opposition and confidence that sufficient safeguards can be put in place to prevent U.S. weapons from reaching Islamist fighters aligned with al Qaeda.
Last month, the Economist had an illuminating report on the Syrian opposition groups, which concluded that, “As the civil war has dragged on, the rebels, hardened by war and seeing where their bread is buttered, have become more Islamist and extreme.” An accompanying helpful chart breaks down the three main fronts of the opposition (which represent alliances of various rebel fighting groups) and then further breaks down the nine key rebel fighting groups. According to the chart, two of the three main fronts are Islamist, as are seven of the nine key rebel fighting groups.
The Economist describes the most dangerous one:
For Western governments pondering whether to arm the rebels rather than merely advise them and provide non-lethal support, Jabhat al-Nusra is the biggest worry. By some estimates, it now has 6,000 carefully vetted men, mainly Syrians but under foreign leadership. Its global jihadist ideology justifies violence to bring about a nation where all Muslims unite. “Most groups are a reaction to the regime, whereas we are fighting for a vision,” explains one of its fighters.
Though Jabhat al-Nusra says it gets most of its weapons from the spoils of battle, it also enjoys murky sources of private funding, including regular payments from al-Qaeda in Iraq.
It’s hard to believe that the same administration that brought us Benghazi would have such perfect information about which rebel groups in a bloody war-torn country are completely free of Islamist links, let alone have the logistical ability to ensure the weapons don’t end up in the hands of bad actors.
(Link to Economist story via the Clarion Project.)