Reporting from inside Syria, Time magazine correspondent Rania Abouzeid counters the claim that extremists currently dominate the armed resistance against the Assad regime. Having interviewed a number of Islamist and non-Islamist rebels in Syria’s Idlib province, she writes: “There has been much speculation about whether or not Islamic radicals have gained a foothold in the chaotic battlefield that is Syria today. They have, albeit a small one. While there are jihadists, both foreign and local, inside Syria, their presence should not be overstated. At this stage, they remain a minor player in the conflict.” But Abouzeid warns: This all could change if the Syrian crisis spirals completely out of control.
No doubt, many members of the Syria’s internal opposition are religious or pious to some degree, but that does not mean that they therefore are extremists. Syria’s security situation makes it difficult to conduct accurate polling of rebels, but Pechter Polls successfully surveyed a large group of opposition members or supporters about their attitudes and beliefs. Summarizing the survey’s findings in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s David Pollock—a consultant to Pechter Polls who served previously in the State Department and the U.S. Information Agency, where he supervised the government’s study of public opinion, elite attitudes, and media content in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa—wrote: “The survey demonstrates that the core of the Syrian opposition inside the country is not made up of the Muslim Brotherhood or other fundamentalist forces, and certainly not of al Qaeda or other jihadi organizations.” In a separate qualitative study, the Institute for the Study of War’s Joseph Holliday, a former Army intelligence officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, concluded, “the opposition is not, as the Assad regime has been eager to portray it, all ‘Salafis, Jihadists, Muslim Brotherhood supporters, al-Qaeda, and terrorists.’”
However, if more time passes without an end to the Assad regime’s campaign of indiscriminate violence, and if the United States and other nations continue to stand on the sidelines, then an increasing number of Syrian opposition members may become desperate enough to choose extremism over defeat. Now that the Assad regime has killed over 19,000 Syrians since March 2011, it’s long past due for the United States and like-minded nations to intervene. An American-led coalition should move quickly to establish “safe zones” to protect embattled civilians, and use these zones to provide the full spectrum of support and training to carefully-vetted internal opposition groups, with the goal of proactively and positively influencing their short- and long-term agendas.
Abouzeid correctly observes, “the failure of the international community to decisively act created the conditions that some Islamists have managed to exploit.” The danger is that continued U.S. and allied inaction may be leaving beleaguered Syrians with little choice but to strike a deal with the devil.