By Barry Rubin
In a new development, the Obama Administration is apparently not only arming (indirectly, technically) but now training Syrian rebels. We know that the weapons are going to radical Islamists–both Muslim Brotherhood and smaller groups.
We don’t know which groups are now being trained militarily by the CIA in Jordan. It has been suggested that these are only Syrian army defectors who are thus likely not to be from radical Islamist groups including the Brotherhood. But is that selectivity certain? Finding out who is receiving this military training–which they are sure to use for other purposes in future–should be a priority in the national debate and in questions from Congress.
What might be happening is this:
Qatar backs the Muslim Brotherhood; the Saudis who hate the Brotherhood are backing the smaller Salafi groups; and Jordan which is terrified by the Islamists is supporting the Free Syrian Army which is run by ex-army officers.
Such is the nature of U.S. policy that it goes along with all three rather than directs the process toward a specific goal. The State Department is trying to find people who are relatively moderate while also able to have links to the Brotherhood.
You can imagine how tough that is to achieve. What a mess.
In the 1980s the United States was convulsed by a scandal because the Reagan Administration was providing arms–through Saudi Arabia–and training to the pro-American Contra group in Nicaragua that were fighting against the Marxist regime there. It was alleged that the Contras participated in some torture and killing of civilians. Well, today the Obama Administration is doing the same strategy–with Saudi and Qatari help–in Syria, with much more likelihood of atrocities by those it is helping. On top of that, those being helped are largely anti-American and radical Islamist. Yet there is no serious concern being raised.
Largely due to the local situation but reinforced by U.S. policy, radical Islamists will one day rule Syria. What will follow will not be real democracy but another Islamist dictatorial state. Islamist militias armed with U.S. weapons and that new regime might well use U.S. weapons and training to kill Christians and Alawites; enforce second-class status on women; and intimidate moderates as well as to attack Israel. While the mass media has widely reported the U.S. role in arming the rebels, and is now picking up the training story, virtually nowhere is the significance of this policy and its escalation analyzed.
As I have repeatedly explained, the issue regarding Syria is not whether the United States should help more—it is already helping to supply arms indirectly through Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—but to whom the arms and help flow. In principle, the Syrian opposition is fighting against a terrible dictatorship (see my book, The Truth About Syria for details, available free here). Yet for all practical purposes, it is dominated by radical Islamist militias (except for the Kurds who are faced with local rule by a radical Marxist militia).
The reality, then, is this:
The United States is helping arm and perhaps helping to train radical Islamist guerrillas who want a Sharia state in Syria, who believe Israel should be wiped off the map, and who may soon be murdering and oppressing Christians and other groups in Syria itself.
Shouldn’t this be an issue–one day it might be a scandal–that’s widely discussed in Congress and the mass media? There might be a way around this, as is being hinted, if the Americans, British, and French are only training former Syrian army soldiers, relatively few of whom would be in Islamist groups. The excuse would then be that only regular soldiers are qualified for the training but that would also be designed to keep out Islamists. This would be a better approach though it still has dangers.
This brings us to the second problem:
The Islamists are getting more international military help than the moderates.
While the nominal Syrian opposition leadership backed by the United States is better than before (up until recently the Obama Administration openly backed the Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council!) it is powerless on the ground. The guys with guns—fully automatic weapons by the way with large magazines—are a nightmare.
Again, the issue isn’t whether the United States wants an end to Syria’s dictatorship (nationalist version). Yes, of course, to fall (yes, of course) but whether it wants it to be followed by a Syrian dictatorship (Islamist version). The latter may be some improvement over the current regime in one strategic respect: it would be anti-Iran and try to subvert Iranian influence in Lebanon. But hopes that the Syrian people will really have a better life are quite questionable.
The czar was overthrown in 1917 by the Communists; so was the shah, in 1979 by the Islamists; and the much-ridiculed Weimar Republic in Germany was overturned by Hitler in 1932; and the corrupt monarchy in Egypt in 1952, and the corrupt regime in Cuba in 1959. At the time, in each case, it was claimed that the successor regime had to be better. In fact, it was worse by far.
As in the case of Egypt, the massive coverage and discussion of the Syria issue largely ignores clearly visible scenarios and dangers that should be taken into consideration in setting policy.
Israeli intelligence says that radical Islamist militias now control the entire Syrian side of the two countries’ border. Are U.S.-backed rebels or the government they produce (even if it denies such behavior) going to restart attacks on Israel across a border which has been quiet for forty years? Unconfirmed reports are that at least one of the training courses involves anti-tank warfare. That might in the long-run be used more against Israeli than against Syrian forces. While there is a real chance of bickering–see here–the basis might also be established for an Egypt-Gaza Strip-Syria alliance among the Muslim Brotherhood branches ruling each country.
Equally, the Obama Administration does not know whether the weapons and training will be used in massive human rights’ violations and ethnic massacres. Equally, the Obama Administration does not know whether the weapons and training will be used in massive human rights’ violations and ethnic massacres of civilian Alawites and Christians. These might be carried out with U.S.-facilitated weapons. Remember that if such things happen they were predictable and predicted.
Then there is the potential for anti-American terrorism. I think the U.S. ambassador was in Benghazi, Libya, the day he was murdered, to try to retrieve U.S.-supplied weapons, including lightweight, advanced anti-aircraft systems, that Libyan Islamists were selling to Hamas and other terrorist groups. Yet how much difference is there between providing arms to Hamas (Muslim Brotherhood, Gaza branch) and to the Muslim Brotherhood, Syria branch? And will some U.S. diplomats be placed in jeopardy a year or two from now trying to get back those weapons supplied in Syria?
Thus, the Syria situation might be setting the foundation for a new Benghazi-type situation.
Secretary of State John Kerry discussed increased U.S. backing for the Syrian rebels in a meeting with Qatar’s prime minister. Qatar is the country cooperating with the United States in supplying weapons to the Muslim Brotherhood forces, the best organized militias, in Syria. Yet beyond this supposed cooperation, in reality Qatar is a headache for real Middle East moderates because it often sides with radical Islamist forces including Iran. Qatar is not giving weapons to the Syrian Brotherhood because it likes America but because it wants the Brotherhood to win. In Obama Administration parlance this is a good thing since that helps the “moderate” Brotherhood as opposed to the radical Salafists.
Kerry said: “We did discuss the question of the ability to try to guarantee that it’s going to the right people and to the moderate Syrian opposition coalition.”
Consider that sentence:
–Who are “the right people?” The Obama Administration considers the Muslim Brotherhood and several dozen radical Islamist (Salafist) groups to be the “right people” qualified to receive weapons. Almost all of these groups defended the al-Qaida militia against a U.S. boycott. According to information from U.S. government sources, the number of actual moderate groups that American experts think can be counted on is a small proportion, perhaps amounting to 10 or 20 percent of the whole.
–Since arms are already being supplied in large quantities are they in fact going to the right people, considering that there were some real problems with this procedure in Afghanistan and Libya?
–Kerry did not refer to moderates in the Syrian opposition coalition but implied that the coalition itself is moderate. That’s not true. The armed opposition is largely led by the Brotherhood and Salafists; the political arm of the opposition is largely led by the Brotherhood.
Then, Kerry said something even more remarkably troubling because it reflected willful ignorance or indifference to arming radical anti-American Islamists. In the words of the New York Times:
“Kerry said the Obama administration had gained new confidence in recent months that the Syrian opposition coalition could minimize the risk that weapons would fall into hostile hands. He said there was no need for the U.S. to provide arms now because other nations were already sending enough.”
Hostile hands? They are deliberately and consciously sending these weapons to hostile hands! Presumably, he is hinting at al-Qaida. Well, one group out of about 40 Islamist militias is al-Qaida. Are the other dozens of anti-Western, antisemitic, anti-Christian groups thus okay?
Again, there are relative moderates in the opposition. Politically there are also liberals, leftists, defected army officers (radical nationalists who now seem moderate compared to the Islamists), and Kurdish nationalists. Yet the Kurdish group running northeastern Syria now is a Marxist-oriented cult that’s part of the Turkey-based, terrorist PKK.
How much more visible could the developing mess be? Have no doubt that there are some senior career officials in the State and Defense departments who are horrified. Yet despite the current policy’s serious problems and visibly dangerous outcomes there is no major debate about these points. As we saw with Iran, the Oslo peace process, and more recently with Egypt, the canoe is heading toward the waterfall and the only argument is over how fast to paddle.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Thirteen of his books can be read and downloaded for free at the website of the GLORIA Center including The Arab States and the Palestine Conflict, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East and The Truth About Syria. His blog is Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.