Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry went against received wisdom—and against the assessment of the White House he works for—when he argued that Syrian opposition forces are not dominated by Islamic extremists. “I just don’t agree that a majority are al Qaeda and the bad guys,” Kerry argued in his congressional testimony. “There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists. . . . Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.”
“Probably less,” says Major Issam Rayyes, a former Syrian Army communications officer who defected in June 2012 and now serves as a coordinator for the opposition’s Supreme Military Council. “I was watching the hearing and one congressmen insisted the opposition was 50 percent al Qaeda, and Kerry was right to correct him,” Rayyes told me by Skype from northern Syria. “I’m not saying they’re not here. They have a presence, and they’ve captured some territory. But they’re in the minority. Congress is making a mistake in thinking the opposition is al Qaeda.”
According to the Syrian rebels, that’s one of two huge popular misconceptions concerning the two-and-a-half-year conflict. The other is that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is winning.
Ever since the regime, with help from Hezbollah, retook the town of Qusayr in June, we’ve heard that Assad’s forces are on a roll. However, a number of analysts and journalists on the ground in Syria suggest more recent evidence argues otherwise. Indeed, the regime’s brazen chemical attack last month in the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta suggests Assad may think his position is becoming increasingly vulnerable and that he’s running out of options. Because regime troops proved unable to clear an area of vital importance that the rebels had held for over a year, Assad was willing to test Obama’s red line and deploy, again, his unconventional arsenal.
Because Obama wanted no part of the Syrian conflict, the White House helped create the perception that it all came down to a choice between Assad and an al Qaeda project to turn Syria into an Islamic emirate. After the opposition took up arms to defend itself and some American policy-makers like Senator John McCain argued for supporting the rebels, administration officials first claimed that they didn’t know who was in the opposition. Later, the White House said they did know—that al Qaeda was in the ascendant.
Who in their right mind, after all, would argue for arming the engineers of 9/11? With the progeny of bin Laden on one side and Assad and the Iranian-led resistance bloc on the other, the only strategically sound course would be to let them fight each other until no one was left standing. The White House’s information campaign had the added benefit of resonating in some Republican circles. For instance, where McCain wanted a victory in Syria to see American interests prevail over Iran’s, his 2008 running mate agreed with the White House that a draw was preferable. “Let Allah sort it out,” said Sarah Palin.
And indeed, in certain parts of Syria, especially near the Turkish border, Sunni extremists, including al Qaeda affiliates, have until recently been a significant part of the war against Assad. Without Western support, Syrian fighters flocked to the groups that could offer money and arms, much of it coming from private donors in the Gulf Cooperation Council states. Whether rebel fighters grew long beards and shouted Islamist slogans out of conviction, or simply because it convinced Kuwaiti billionaires to keep the spigot on, Islamist units like Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian Islamic Front, and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria were certainly a factor. They became much less significant when Saudi Arabia, or more specifically Saudi national security adviser Prince Bandar bin Sultan, took the reins.
Saudi policies, as Syria scholar and University of Edinburgh professor Thomas Pierret recently wrote, “translate into support for political forces that are inherently conservative or hostile to Islamist movements.” As Riyadh has backed the Egyptian military against the Muslim Brotherhood, it has pursued an analogous course in Syria. Pierret explains that “the marked increase in Saudi involvement in the conflict over the last months has translated into a revival of the mainstream insurgency, and a decline in the relative weight of hardline Salafis.”