Coffee House

How Obama united Syria’s rebel groups

20 December 2012

7:33 PM

20 December 2012

7:33 PM

How soon the revolutionaries forget. You only need a sketchy knowledge of what happens to the pigs in Animal Farm to appreciate how easily revolutions are deflected from their original course. A recent – and rare – show of unity by disparate Syrian rebel groups suggests this is happening in Syria, too.

Throughout the 20 month uprising President Obama has watched and wavered with almost blithe indifference (save for the occasional condemnation) as Bashar al-Assad has killed more than 50,000 of his own people. This changed last week when the White House finally intervened. In its most decisive pronouncement on the conflict to date, the jihadist group known as Jabhat al-Nusrah (which has ties to al-Qaeda) was proscribed. It goes without saying that the group is highly dangerous and problematic, complicating an already difficult situation even further.

The backlash was as swift as it was unanimous. Jabhat al-Nusrah naturally condemned the move, but so too did the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the Syrian National Council and the Muslim Brotherhood. It is perhaps the only time in the entire uprising that all the different revolutionary bodies have been united on anything.

To say this reveals an overarching Islamist agenda is to overlook the iridescence of the uprising. There are different phases of the Syrian revolution. In its original form, the revolution began as a peaceful movement only agitating for reform. When Assad responded with a wave of arrests, protesters began chanting for his removal. Assad then retaliated with bullets and killed hundreds in the process. This miserable pattern looped for several months. Peaceful protesters would demonstrate only to find themselves being gunned down. Those less fortunate would be disappeared into the Baathist state’s labyrinthine web of subterranean torture chambers.

Those who emerge – often dead – bore all the hallmarks of unparalleled barbarism. When authorities caught up with Ibrahim Kashoush, a singer from Hama who wrote a popular pro-revolutionary song branding Assad an ‘ass’ he was beaten for days before having his throat slit and his voice box removed. His body was then thrown in the street as a warning to others.


Syrian soldiers unable to abide orders to attack their own people began defecting and formed the Free Syrian Army. Their first real stand came in the besieged town of Baba Amr, Homs, where they prevented Assad’s forces from entering the town for several weeks. This was the best they could hope for. Outgunned, outmanned, and with little outside support, they were eventually forced into a tactical retreat.

That scenario was repeated across the country while the FSA struggled to find backers who would arm them. This was not the only factor that would weaken them. The FSA is comprised of Army defectors who think in conventional military terms and are ill prepared for guerrilla war.

Jabhat al-Nusrah filled that void. Comprised of remnants from the Iraqi insurgency, they have experience of waging efficient guerrilla campaigns after years of fighting coalition forces. They have shown the FSA it is pointless trying to control large swathes of territory. Their emphasis is on fighting. Whenever possible they engage Assad’s forces, ambush them, exhaust them, deplete their resources, and ultimately kill them. This has yielded dividends. Even secular FSA commanders and ordinary Syrians who have little time for religious millenarianism are impressed with the military prowess of the jihadists.

Perhaps most important has been their ability to marshal resources for the Syrian cause. It is often said that money from the Gulf – particularly from Saudi Arabia and Qatar – is fuelling the jihadist impulse in Syria. It is, but they were never the first port of call for Syrian rebels. For months the rebels appealed for Western support. This took many forms: calls for a humanitarian buffer zone, the imposition of a no fly zone, and finally for material support to assist the FSA. Non-lethal support was eventually provided, but such equipment is of little utility when faced with the brutal arsenal Assad’s forces have shown little compunction in using.

In this context the ban on Jabhat al-Nusrah seems inexplicable to many Syrians. Yes, their Islamist agenda is a dangerous one. If they succeed, they will replace one barbarism with another. But worrying over the abstractions of a seemingly distant future is a luxury for ordinary Syrians whose event horizon is corseted by the privations of war.

There is a large body of opinion which suggests we are right to have resisted intervention in Syria. The spectre of Iraq lingers like the ghost of Banquo, as does the quagmire in Afghanistan. Perhaps our inactivity was the best course of action. However, just as intervention comes with associated costs, so too does passivity.

Jihadists are now embedded, entrenched, and determined to have a say in Syria’s future. Syrians know they will have to confront them after Assad’s demise but that is not their immediate concern. This will be Syria’s next war, condemning the country to ruin for at least the next half decade. Secularists on the ground can only despair at this because they see the jihadists as being borne of Western inactivity.

It is often said we should not police the world’s problems. Too many soldiers have laid down their lives in foreign conflicts over the last decade. There is no tangible or immediate gain to be secured by helping the Syrians. This argument has won the day in Westminster and the White House. But with it goes our ability to influence things on the ground too. Small wonder, then, that the proscription of Jabhat al-Nusrah has achieved what Bashar al-Assad failed to do in 20 months of wanton slaughter – to unite all of Syria’s disparate factions in their collective outrage.

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Show comments
  • AY

    effective set of measures to end barbarities like these – is self-evident.

    1. blockade to prevent smuggling weapons and ammo to all groups and militias
    2. air strikes to take out missiles and other long-range weapons
    3. commando operations and drone strikes against groups attacking civilians
    4. supply of non-lethal equipment
    5. wait for stalemate and promote physical separation along armistice lines
    6. give recognition and international aid only to groups with non-aggressive program and proven satisfactory record on human rights

    effective tool would be concerted Western action aimed at putting down oil prices.

    but instead Western countries cynically compete for best oil deals, – as a result money and weapons are pumped into spreading islamic mordor. problem is, jihadis won’t stop in syria – their next goals will be in Lebanon, Golan, Israel, Jordan and eventually they wiil threaten Europe. though, no much worry about Israelis – they know how to defend themselves.

    one should only hope that sanity eventually prevails. but in the short term everything looks bad – there will be more wars, bombs, and massacres.
    as all experience since 9/11 suggests, if not resisted skillfully and systematically, islamic hell only expands.

    • TomTom

      Blockade – Russian aircaft land daily in Damascus…..air strikes take out best Air Defence System in Middle East manned by Russians…….Why not simply save time AY and start a war with Russia ? How will we stop Turkey shipping weapons into Syria and having Turkish Officers contro, rebels in mUslim Brotherhood strongholds like Homs ? Will MI6 close its Training Centre for Rebels in Turkey ? Will the SAS be withdrawn friom tUrkey ? Will French Special Forces be withdrawn ?

      • TomTom

        Oh and let’s not forget Qatar which spent so much in Libya and is doing the same in Syria aided by Hollande and Cameron…..nice little earner….I bet the Qatar regime knows how to show gratitude

        • AY

          as I wrote – these are hypthetical measures West (including Russia) could take IF united against barbarians.

          instead at least for now, everyone prefers to have its own pet cannibal to get influence in the middle east.

  • dalai guevara

    The US, the Middle East – yet no news of the MoD’s multi million pound payout in FOUR HUNDRED PLUS (!) Iraqi cases, which suggest systemic abuse to put it mildly. Unbelievable, I am speechless – what is wrong with this country?

  • Augustus

    Revolutionary Islamist groups are not America’s friends, they nurture a bitter hatred of the West; hatred of Jews, and hatred of all the freedoms that unbelievers cherish. This blind hatred can only be extinguished in one way: when those that are hated surrender and subordinate themselves to them. No doubt the rebels will capture Damascus sometime in the new year, the world will recognize a rebel regime as ruling the country, and there will be a bloodbath. Expect the Obama administration to take little or no action. And who will be the winner of all those rebel groups? Probably the Brotherhood: The best armed, most organized, knows what it thinks and wants, and the one that has the most international backing. Rule by decree and intimidation all over again, but one less inclined to support America’s interests, more vocally opposed to Israel and supportive of the Palestinians (particularly the Palestinian terrorists), and definitely unfriendly towards Christians at home. Because, however repressive Assad’s regime turned out, at least a reasonably peaceful coexistence of all religious and ethnic groups prevailed. So much for peaceful reform and transition!

    • Daniel Maris

      I think once Syria is in the bag for the MB, then we will probably see steps to put the Pre-Caliphate (Qatar, Turkey, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia) on a more formal footing with something like a Council for Islamic Co-operation or some such.

      • AY

        that would be great – clear address for sanctions, boycotts, iron curtain and cold war. starve the beast! BTW everyone can start his personal resistance.

        I for example boycott kebabs and avoid any restaurants that might sell halal.

        • HooksLaw

          Nice line.

          I think in fact most chicken is killed halal. I don’t think the processors can afford 2 different ways.

          • TomTom

            All NZ lamb is Halal since the Middle East is their main export market since Britain joined the EU. Not ALL chicken is halal but probably all in Tesco, Asda, M&S rather than local organic suppliers. Best to eat pork

          • AY

            halalfirst-foremost means that animal is killed by a muslim. also some islamic spell is said before it is killed. not sure if all butchers at UK chicken farms are already muslim.

          • AY

            halalfirst-foremost means that animal is killed by a muslim. also some islamic spell is said before it is killed. not sure if all butchers at UK chicken farms are already muslim.

        • ToryboyHeidegger

          haha what is this…?

          impotent rage c*ckfest…?

      • Augustus

        You may well be right. Once the status quo permits these fundamentalists will start to execute their strategic ideological plans. Such as curbing relations with the West and Israel, with as an ultimate goal supporting the fight against
        the ‘Zionist entity’. But fundamentalist politics should also be interpreted on the basis of the political reality and ideological framework within which the fundamentalist party is located. Currently Syria is very much still a divisive issue for the fundamentalists of the Middle East.

    • Trev

      Well said.

  • Jebediah

    Oh please. You’ve basically said we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. As we’re going to be blamed anyway, let’s do it at the cost of no soldiers lives. The Russian’s were right on this one, the cure will be as bad the disease.

  • TomTom

    Maybe we can turn Syria into another Afghanistan and have permanent war on Turkey’s frontier and the emergence of the Kurdish Wars in Syria and Turkey ? The West has been brilliant at de-stabilisation – now to overturn Lebanon and start the break-up of Turkey. Permanent Warfare is the best way to keep US Defence Spending increasing with bit players like Britain and France along for the ride

    • HooksLaw
      • TomTom

        Lovely URL if you like registering…..but otherwise a secret

        • HooksLaw

          Pentagon to cut 485 billion.

          If they fall off the fiscal cliff the cuts will be deeper still. Either way we must hope the F35 survives.

          • TomTom

            The F-35 is Corporate Welfare and a White Elephant. The USA is obsessed with weapons platforms costing $100 million plus a copy and it is pointless. There is something seriously wrong when spending $107 million on a plane before loading any weapons systems….it is sheer stupidity. American workers lose jobs because “it is cheaper to make in China” but their taxes then produce $107 million aircraft which suggests horrible inefficiency in producing a killing machine – and they want to buy 2443 of them !!!!!! Bizarre !

  • HooksLaw

    I sincerely hope 50,000 have not been killed. Other sources put the figure at 20,000, others 30,000.
    The lower figures are of course terrible enough, there ought to be no more cause for talking up the figures in Syria than there was in Iraq.
    In the general way of things 50,000 dead would result in 200,000 wounded. its there evidence of this?

    ‘Too many soldiers have laid down their lives in foreign conflicts over
    the last decade. There is no tangible or immediate gain to be secured by
    helping the Syrians. This argument has won the day in Westminster and
    the White House. But with it goes our ability to influence things on the
    ground too.’

    There is no truth or logic to any of this.
    We are helping the Syrians. This seems clear. We do hope to get benefits from this. As such we do have influence on the ground. Putting our own boots on the ground in any role at this stage seems wholly impractical so the whole basis of the above extract seems flawed.

    • Vulture

      You are as deluded on this one as you are on every subject that you opine. Your post reveals you to be an ignoramus on foreign affairs as you are on domestic matters. Have you been taking a crash course conducted by Daniel Korski?
      Augustus above says it all: the Islamists are coming in Syria, there will be a massive bloodbath of Alawites, Christians and secularists, the West will lose. (Again).

      • HooksLaw

        The report says we have no influence – I suggested we do, and do not need to put soldiers in. Are you suggesting we sent our soldiers to invade Syria?

        Your miserable obsessions are hysterical. I suppose you need these bogymen. What is going on in the wilds of Pakistan is the source of our problems.
        What we are in fact seeing is a justification for the Bush invasion of Iraq. How these countries develop is their business. Our best interest is preserved by promoting democracy. This is not going to happen overnight – on the contrary it will take a long time.

        • michael

          Nope. what we are seeing has been in the works for 600 years

    • TomTom

      So you hope 20,000 have been killed ? Weird. How many did The West kill in Iraq ? Afghanistan ? Try the Drone Killings….………how many children are dismembered in the latest videogame

      • HooksLaw

        Where do I say I hope 20,000 have been killed. In fact I am questioning the number alleged and quoting other claims. We see your usual inadequate level of English comprehension.

        Some reports say the number of dead is 8000. The bloodiest allied campaign in WW2 was Italy where 60,000 were killed and 320000 casualties overall. This was after about 20 months of fierce fighting. Its not easy killing 50,000 people. I suspect the alleged figure is too high. As I say 20,000 would be bad enough.

        I think the casualties inflicted by the allies in Iraq was about 15,000. The other deaths were inflicted by the muslims on each other.

  • toco10

    A compelling but sad analysis of what is likely to unfold and yet again Obama has proved to be inadequate and a poor international statesman.At least with Libya the British,French and Italians in association with the Arab League helped in a positive way rather than stand on the sidelines and allow eternal factional bllodshed.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      So you think maybe he should help the islamofascists murder some more of his diplomats?