Arms and the Arabs 2

Bashar Assad, Dictator of Syria, is a cruel man. Most dictators are. He’s a cool mass murderer, as his father was before him. Holding on to power seems to be his only aim, however small the Syrian nation may be that eventually remains for him to exercize power over.

A part of the oppressed nation is now rebelling against him in diverse fighting factions, not a co-ordinated force under a single command. For some reason we cannot figure out, the Western powers want this rabble of rebels to succeed in overthrowing Assad. They must imagine that whichever faction leader supplants Assad will be a better dictator. They surely cannot expect him not to be a dictator at all. As with the rebel rabbles in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya they spoke of the insurgent masses as aspiring democrats, thirsting for liberty. They helped rebels to topple sitting dictators. They applauded when, the old dictators gone, temporary authorities smiling like crocodiles presided over Western-style elections. It was a grand show, a political charade. The result has been new oppressors  coming to power in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

Why do we of little faith suppose that the same result will come about in Syria? Might there not be a faction among the rebels there which has a humane, tolerant  sort of leader, one who respects human life,  abominates torture, wants more nursery schools, cleaner hospitals, a better transport system, and  genuine friendship with the West?

What is known about the rebel groups? Anything at all? We’ve heard that there are al-Qaeda affiliates among them. How big? Growing or shrinking? How armed and by whom?

We found some answers in an article by Jackson Diehl, deputy editor of the editorial page of the Washington Post. (Surprisingly, it is critical of President Obama.)

For more than a year, the Obama administration has been assuring the world that the downfall of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is “a matter of time.” Yes, its own Middle East experts warned, but how much time matters. The longer the fighting goes on, they said, the more likely it is that what began as a peaceful mass opposition movement would be hijacked by extremists, including allies of al-Qaeda.

President Obama ignored that advice, ruling out measures that could have quickly brought down the regime — such as a no-fly zone — in favor of a year of feckless diplomacy. But it turned out the experts were right. So now the consequence of Obama’s passivity has a name, one that will surely haunt the occupant of the White House in 2013: Jabhat al-Nusra.

Actually, the full name of the Middle East’s latest jihadist terror movement, announced on an al-Qaeda-linked Web site last January, is Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham Min Mujaheddin al Sham fi Sahat al Jihad, which means “Support Front for the People of Syria from the Mujaheddin of Syria in the places of Jihad.”

It was dismissed at first as a hoax, or maybe as a concoction of Assad’s intelligence service. Now its black flag is recognized, and often cheered, across Syria, and its bearded, baggy-pantalooned fighters are at the forefront of the critical battle for the city of Aleppo.

In the spring Jabhat al-Nusra had maybe 50 adherents, most of them in hiding, and had claimed credit for only a handful of attacks. Now it may have close to 1,000 core followers, and fighting units around Syria have begun openly claiming to belong to it. On YouTube, videos show the residents of areas taken over by the rebels waving its flag and chanting its name.

“They have been able to take an extremist identity and really give it a popular following in a context of bloody civil war,” says Elizabeth O’Bagy, the author of a sobering study of Syria’s jihadists for the Institute for the Study of War. “They have become the most significant threat to long-term stability in Syria.”

“Stability in Syria.” There was stability of a kind under Assad dictatorship. One of the abiding mysteries is why persons in the West want stability at any cost in regions of wretchedness such as the Arab Middle East. Whether stable or in the throes of revolution, wretchedness is the norm and survival is precarious. But we value Elizabeth O’Bagy’s information that this al-Qaeda affiliated faction has become most significant.

Was it to them the murdered US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and the large CIA operation set up in Benghazi, were organizing the shipment of arms through Turkey? (See our post Obama the arms broker to al-Qaeda, October 26, 2012.) To what extent has aid and encouragement from the Obama administration helped  Jabhat al-Nusra to grow?

Jackson Diehl anticipates our question and replies:

No, Barack Obama’s policies alone did not create this monster. [Our emphasis.] It is, first of all, a creature of Assad’s own regime, blowback from his years of sponsoring terrorist networks in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories. For more than a decade, Syrian intelligence allowed al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups to establish bases and logistical networks to support attacks on American troops in Iraq, anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon, and Israel. Now many of those rat lines have been reversed, and the extremists are targeting Assad.

He sponsored their training and arming. Now the beast he has fattened is turning on him. It’s a perfect vignette of Middle Eastern chaos.

They do so because they were never his natural allies — Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, is considered heretical by the Sunni jihadists — and because they see an opening to rebuild a movement that was shattered in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of the first contingents to bolster Jabhat al-Nusra, O’Bagy found, came from Fatah al Islam, a former Syrian intelligence client that launched a battle in 2007 to take over a Palestinian refu­gee camp near Tripoli, Lebanon. “These individuals,” O’Bagy writes, “received training in weapons and insurgency tactics from the Syrian government and gained experience using them in Iraq and Lebanon. They also have knowledge of and connections to the Syrian intelligence and security apparatus.”

In fact, the group has specialized in attacks on intelligence facilities. On Oct. 9, it staged a sophisticated, three-stage assault on an air force intelligence compound outside Damascus. Earlier in the month, it claimed credit for a string of bombings in Aleppo that targeted an officer’s club and other government-held facilities, reportedly killing dozens.

The rebel groups are not even willingly co-operating with each other. Only for the moment they fight together because they have the common aim of toppling the tyrant Assad.

Leaders of the Free Syrian Army, the mainstream rebel force that emerged from the original protest movement, don’t support the jihadists or their tactics. But as the war in cities like Aleppo becomes more desperate, Jabhat al-Nusra has provided precious reinforcements. Thanks to generous support from sources in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states, its units are often better-armed than secular forces

We note in passing that this al-Qaeda linked faction is generously supported by the Saudis. But we stop to consider what O’Bagy says next –

which have been starved by Obama’s ban on U.S. weapon supplies.

“Obama’s ban on U.S. weapon supplies.” So to whichever factions Ambassador Stevens and the CIA were getting or trying to get arms, whether to the “secular” forces or the al-Qaeda affiliates or both, Obama was subverting his own policy? If that is so, it can be no wonder that he is trying to cover up the disaster in Libya.  

The result, says O’Bagy, is that the character of Syria’s opposition has changed. “It’s no longer a pro-democracy force trying to bring down a dictatorship. It no longer holds the moral high ground. They have muddied the waters.”

“No longer a pro-democracy force”. Was it ever?

The Washington Post article ends on a note of dire warning:

If the war drags on, Jabhat al-Nusra will surely grow stronger. …  It could try to get hold of Syria’s abundant stocks of chemical weapons. And it could start looking beyond Syria for targets. You might say it’s a matter of time.

Does Obama have the faintest idea of what he has got America into? Does Defense Secretary Panetta? Or CIA chief General Petraeus? Or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton?

We very much doubt it.

  • Nice posting Jillian. As you point out, any desires for democratic freedom ascribed to these people are purely projections on our part. The Arabs simply do not know what real democracies (or approximate democracies if we are honest) look like. When reporters ask them about it, the true meaning surely gets lost in translation.

    Freedom for them means that their tribe is no longer dominated and marginalized by another that has been in control of the central government. It is amazing to me that with all the reporting being done on middle eastern conflicts, proper emphasis is never given to the tribal nature of Arabs. The reason seems fairly obvious. The administration would like for us to believe that when a dictator is overthrown, the rebels have somehow worked out a new governing structure, or at least a framework of cooperation. To be fair, the rebels probably do their best to convince the west of this fiction, so that the west feels more comfortable in supplying them with weapons.

    Here is an excellent article written by the “Jamestown Foundation” you may find interesting:

    http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=39452

    • liz

      I sure hope Romney has a better handle on this, and doesn’t keep pouring money down this rat-hole. Or attempt to treat them as if they actually know the meaning of the word “democracy”.