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Sorting Out the Opposition to Assad

They’re not all jihadist dead-enders.

Sep 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 02 • By LEE SMITH
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So why is John Kerry the major figure pushing back against the White House’s thesis that al Qaeda dominates the opposition? Why didn’t the rebels speak up for themselves? Because they were busy with the reality on the ground, says Oubai Shabhandhar, the Syrian Support Group’s vice president for Middle East operations, who works closely with the Syrian Military Council (SMC). “They were fighting a war, and what they heard didn’t make sense. The notion that they are pawns of al Qaeda was so unbelievable that they thought it didn’t warrant a response,” says Shabhandhar, a former Pentagon official whose family is originally from Damascus. “Finally, we’re starting to fight the message that the opposition is al Qaeda.”

Then, too, as the administration argued, the opposition is fragmented—which is partly a result of petty rivalries, competition, and insufficient coordination between rebel groups inside the country, never mind with the political spokesmen and officials in exile. But the opposition’s inability to push back against the White House’s portrait of it also reflects the trauma of a people locked in a dark closet for more than 40 years. With two generations of Syrians raised under the Assad family’s dictatorship, the opposition simply didn’t have the sophistication to craft a PR campaign on its own behalf. Shabhandhar says that’s starting to change. The SMC has a restructured media office focusing on outreach to Western journalists. 

The White House’s decision to conflate all Syrian opposition with al Qaeda also meant pretending that the United States had no interests at stake in Syria. Accordingly, the president neither forged coalitions among American allies to face down the Iran-Russia-Assad alliance, nor built up rebel units that would be accountable to Washington in the event that someday he might need one or the other or both. Thus, when Obama decided in the wake of last month’s chemical weapons attack that there was indeed an American interest, he was left with one option—unilateralism. Only France, whose prospective contribution is uncertain, is willing to stand with the United States, and there are no rebel units that answer directly to Washington. What happens if the rebels win?

One rebel commander in Damascus I spoke with thinks it’s a done deal. “If the regime’s assets are hit in Damascus, rebel efforts will be focused on Damascus,” says a fighter with a unit close to the target area of last month’s gas attack. “When the regime falls, we’ll capture the rest of Damascus. We’ve been working on a transition plan for nine months,” he continues, “to prevent chaos when the regime falls. Our objectives are to secure liberated areas and to continue essential services, like providing water and food to civilians.”

Why is he so certain the Assad regime is teetering? He explains that in spite of Assad’s self-congratulatory bravado after Obama sought congressional authorization, “We still saw 700 defectors in the last week, including 50 from Assad’s Republican guard.”

Maj. Rayyes agrees. “If this strike is strong enough, if it targets airports and major sites, the regime might fall soon. Maybe 60 days. When the strikes start, lots of soldiers will run away. Mark my words—not defect, run away.”

The rebels are almost certainly overstating the case for optimism. Nonetheless, with McCain pushing the White House to change the momentum on the ground, the balance of power will likely shift against a regime that may be much less sturdy than it lets on. The good news for the White House is that it still has time to arm and train rebel units, thereby making them dependent on and accountable to Washington. Provided, of course, that Obama comes to recognize that there are American interests at stake, besides enforcing a red line drawn in haste.

Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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