'Friends of Syria' move to arm, pay rebels
More than 70 countries and the Syrian opposition met in Istanbul over the weekend with many nations pledging more than $100 million dollars in aid to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The US will supply communications equipment to the rebels and the political opposition so that they can talk to each other, as well as get messages past President Assad's censors and out to the world.
Much of that aid will go to paying the fighters of the FSA. And some of the Gulf states have pledged to supply small arms and other military support to the rebels.
The moves reflected a growing consensus, at least among the officials who met here this weekend under the rubric "Friends of Syria," that mediation efforts by the United Nations peace envoy, Kofi Annan, were failing to halt the violence that is heading into its second year in Syria and that more forceful action was needed.
With Russia and China blocking United Nations measures that could open the way for military action, the countries lined up against the government of President Bashar al-Assad sought to bolster Syria's beleaguered opposition through means that seemed to stretch the definition of humanitarian assistance and blur the line between so-called lethal and nonlethal support.
There remains no agreement on arming the rebels, as countries like Saudi Arabia and some members of Congress have called for, largely because of the uncertainty regarding who exactly would receive the arms.
Still, the offer to provide salaries and communications equipment to rebel fighters known as the Free Syrian Army - with the hopes that the money might encourage government soldiers to defect, officials said - is bringing the loose Friends of Syria coalition to the edge of a proxy war against Mr. Assad's government and its international supporters, principally Iran and Russia.
There are two issues slowing the process of aiding the Syrian opposition; first, the political opposition is hopelessly fractured - except for the Islamists who make up a sizable segment of the Syrian National Council. Second, who exactly would be getting this aid?
In my article today for FrontPage.com, I look at some of the actors who might be in line for assistance:
While many Syrian religious figures have stopped short of calling for jihad against Assad, fearing a bloody sectarian conflict, no such restraint has been shown by Lebanese clerics who are urging their flocks to go to war against Assad and grind him "into dog meat." To that end, several independent battalions of fighters have formed, including the "God is Great" brigade whose fighters march under the black flag of Islamism:
To our fellow revolutionaries, don't be afraid to declare jihad in the path of God. Seek victory from the One God. God is the greatest champion," the brigade's spokesman said in the January video. "Instead of fighting for a faction, fight for your nation, and instead of fighting for your nation, fight for God.
"We don't want to accidentally wind up supporting extremist groups," said Joseph Holliday, of the Institute for the Study of War, in Washington. Holliday added, "The fundamental question is: What happens in the future? And does our involvement make this turn better or worse?"
The FSA is not making a distinction between defectors from the army who are fighting for Syria, and groups of radical youths who fight for an Islamist state. They will no doubt distribute arms based on battlefield success. Who is to say whether the independent groups who claim allegiance to the FSA are fighting to depose Assad or "fight for God"?
Then there are the unknown connections that might exist between the opposition and the shadowy terrorist groups who have begun a campaign of bombings in Damascus and Aleppo. A terrorist organization calling itself the Al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility for a double suicide bombing that killed 27 in Damascus over the weekend. This follows on the heels of several other high profile bombings targeting police stations, intelligence headquarters, and regime supporters. It is also believed that al-Qaeda's Iraqi branch has moved into Syria to assist in overthrowing Assad. Any thought to arming the FSA should take into account the idea that the diffuse leadership of the FSA may contain officers who feel no compunction about working with terrorists to achieve their goals.
If we were to supply arms and support to the rebels, we'd be making the same mistake we made in Libya. Our support for jihadists empowered them politically and they are causing all sorts of problems in post-Gaddafi Libya.
About the best we can do is offer moral suppport and try and organize the world to deal with the humanitarian crisis that is growing by the week. But unlike any other "Arab Spring" country so far, Syria is far too divided by sect, by ethnicity, and by class to coalesce into a united, secular opposition. Assad may not win in the end, but the bitter divisiveness will be a lasting legacy of his clinging to power.