The further misadventures of our new military allies in Syria

How are things going with the noble freedom fighters our illustrious President Barack Obama plans to arm with American weapons?  Let’s check in with General Salim Idriss, described by Reuters as the “consensus figure” promoted as a “cool head to bring together fractious combat units and curb the influence of radical Islamists.”

Wait, what?  He’s going to curb the influence of who, now?

Idriss’s Supreme Military Council, which runs the Free Syrian Army that looked on the verge of toppling Assad last year, is trying to recover from the loss of the town of Qusair to government troops reinforced by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia this month.

Washington’s decision to arm the council, an umbrella group organized into five geographical fronts, and reports that weapons are also coming in from the Gulf, have put the onus on the East German educated former military academic to forge a single rebel front.

Come again?  He was educated in which Germany?

In the absence of a unified political opposition, Idriss is also assuming a political role by sending delegates to the Syrian National Coalition, the civilian arm of the opposition.

But first Idriss has to impose discipline on his own officers and improve the reputation of the military council, which have proved less effective than hardline Islamist units and has struggled to assert its authority on the battlefield.

Like Idriss, most defectors in the Military Council are Sunni Muslims, a group who form the majority of Syria’s population and most of the opposition to Assad.

Sunnis also formed the bulk of the army but had little influence in an organization dominated by members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam that has controlled the military and security apparatus since the 1960s.

What do you suppose the victorious rebels would do to these Alawite fellows?  Andrew Green at the UK Spectator has some ideas, offered in a piece entitled “If You Think Arming the Rebels Is the Answer, Then You Don’t Understand Syria.”

All this spin reflects a fundamental failure to understand the nature of the situation in Syria. Bashar al-Assad is a figurehead, not a dictator on the pattern of Saddam Hussein, or even his father.  If he were to leave for any reason he would be replaced in a twinkling of an eye by some Alawite general.  What some outside observers fail to realise is that the Alawites, having run a very tough police state for 40 years, simply cannot afford to lose power. If they were to do so, they believe that they and their families would be massacred. They may well be right.

On the other side, the rebels fear that, if the present regime were to be left in place, then the secret police would be after them in a flash and they too would suffer a terrible fate. Quite apart from this mutual fear there is, regrettably, now a deep seated desire for revenge by many of those on both sides who have suffered so terribly.

Supposedly the coming shipment of American guns will “create a well-financed and well-armed formation that would attract fighters who until now had little option but to join more radical Islamist units.”

Or maybe Syria’s Islamists will “seize control as moderates dither.”  That was the title of another Reuters piece from Wednesday, which began with the story of how a 2,000-strong “moderate” brigade – filled with “those who used to go to bars, to fight with people and steal” according to its dejected leader – was dismantled “virtually overnight” by hard-line Islamists.

It’s a pattern repeated elsewhere in the country. During a 10-day journey through rebel-held territory in Syria, Reuters journalists found that radical Islamist units are sidelining more moderate groups that do not share the Islamists’ goal of establishing a supreme religious leadership in the country.

The moderates, often underfunded, fragmented and chaotic, appear no match for Islamist units, which include fighters from organizations designated “terrorist” by the United States.

The Islamist ascendancy has amplified the sectarian nature of the war between Sunni Muslim rebels and the Shi’ite supporters of Assad. It also presents a barrier to the original democratic aims of the revolt and calls into question whether the United States, which announced practical support for the rebels last week, can ensure supplies of weapons go only to groups friendly to the West.

Reuters observes that the superior organization and “reputation for being principled” of the Islamist forces, who restrain themselves from wanton looting and “provide civilians with day-to-day necessities,” has made them far more popular with the Syrian people than the undisciplined, larceny-prone “moderates.”  That’s all going to change because we distribute advanced weapons to the thieves?  Assuming the al-Qaeda loyalists haven’t consolidated power before the first shipments of U.S. hardware arrive, of course.

Perhaps tossing this fractious, Islamist-dominated band of brigands American weapons without putting a lot of boots on the ground isn’t such a good idea.  Who knows what they’ll do with our equipment?  

Hopefully they’ll cut down on the number of Christians they behead and feed to dogs.  Such was the fate of taxi driver Andrei Arbashe, who in December was “kidnapped after his brother was heard complaining that fighters against the ruling regime behaved like bandits,” according to the UK Daily Mail.  That comment sounds more as though it was directed at the “moderates” than the hard-line Islamists, since the former are  the ones with a reputation for banditry.

There have been other reports of beheadings by rebel forces, including one in which a child was made party to the beheading of two government soldiers.  And let’s not even start on the cannibalism.

On the other hand, a group of “militants wearing black bandanas of al-Qaeda” laid siege to a monastery to shut down Christian celebrations, and rebel fighters have been running Christian families out of towns they “liberate,” so Syria’s Christian community has little reason to be optimistic about any of the stronger factions in the rebel alliance.

“An estimated 300,000 Christians have been displaced in the conflict, with 80,000 forced out of the Homs region alone,” reported the Daily Mail.  “Many have fled abroad raising fears that Syria???s Christian community may vanish – like others across Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity.”  The Assad regime has been presenting itself as the guarantor of Christian safety.

Even as the “moderates” dwindle, jihadi reinforcements are streaming into Syria from places like Egypt, whose Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi, pointedly passed on an opportunity to denounce Egyptian clerics calling for jihadis to join the battle against Assad.  The Associated Press reports on last Saturday’s rally:

On Saturday, Morsi attended a rally by hard-line clerics who have called for jihad and spoke before a cheering crowd at a Cairo stadium, mainly Islamists. Waving a flag of Egypt and the Syrian opposition, he ripped into the Syrian regime, announced Egypt was cutting ties with Damascus and denounced Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah guerrillas for fighting alongside Assad’s forces.

Clerics at the rally urged Morsi to back their calls for jihad to support rebels. Morsi did not address their calls and did not mention jihad. But his appearance was seen as in implicit backing of the clerics’ message. It came after a senior presidential aide last week said that while Egypt was not encouraging citizens to travel to Syria to help rebels, they were free to do so and the state would take no action against them.

Khalil el-Anani, an Egyptian expert on Islamist groups, called the move “Morsi’s endorsement of jihad in Syria” and warned it was “a strategic mistake that will create a new Afghanistan in the Middle East.”

“He is pushing Egypt into a sectarian war in which we have no interest,” he said.

That sounds like it might be the same direction America is getting pushed in.  There have been plenty of atrocities by Assad’s forces, too, including the infamous “red line” crossed by deploying chemical weapons… a line some suspect the rebels might have crossed as well.  It’s a horrible mess, and intervention through the largely unsupervised distribution of weapons will make America an accomplice to grim events it cannot control.