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.”
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.