The Potential Implications of Foreign Support for the Syrian Opposition
Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, the international community has shown its staunch support for the insurgency despite its radical leanings. This can be attributed to the fact that many states are using certain elements of the Syrian insurgency as proxies in pursuing their various strategic objectives. According to a Washington Post article from January 2014,”Syria has emerged as a powerful magnet for jihadist volunteers, who because of their religious fervor and outside financing play oversize roles in the fighting for and against the Assad regime, in what looks some days like a Sunni-Shiite proxy war” (Booth, 2014). Recent infighting amongst rebel factions has highlighted the violent sectarian nature of these groups, and the brutal executions of captured fighters (Westall, 2014) is an excellent example of the violent tactics being utilized by various factions within the insurgency.
The violent sectarian ideology which has hijacked the insurgency should cause supporters of the opposition to begin questioning the legitimacy of providing support to the rebels as it has already lead to blowback which may spread throughout the entire region; something which is already occurring in Iraq. However, the sponsors of the Syrian opposition appear to be more concerned with achieving short term strategic gains rather than promoting long term regional stability. For Gulf supporters, this support could lead to the downfall of the Gulf’s monarchies, who while sponsoring these groups, could also become future targets. For the United States and its allies, this support could result in the establishment of anti-western regimes in Syria and Iraq and the rise and spread of radical Islam; eventually leading to the destabilization of the Middle East, North Africa and potentially, Europe. These possible consequences would not serve long term U.S., European or the Gulf state’s interests in the long run.
Despite potential outcomes however, one thing remains certain; if outside actors continue backing the Syrian opposition, this support could lead to the destabilization of the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe as groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have global ambitions. This potential outcome needs to be avoided at all costs.
The Syrian Government
Under the stewardship of Bashar al-Assad, Syria was a relatively stable nation which promoted religious tolerance. While Jews in Syria were barred from high level positions within the regime (a likely product of Syria’s longstanding rivalry with Israel), Jews (and all other religions) were allowed to practice their faiths openly without fear of persecution (Georgetown University Berkely Center for religion, Peace and World Affairs). Following 9/11, the Assad regime cooperated with the United States in its extraordinary rendition and detention program in the war on terror, and provided key intelligence to U.S. officials. This cooperation has been credited with foiling numerous terrorist plots. While this cooperation may have been rather superficial (Sunni Islamists being a threat to Assad’s power), it showed that Syria was indeed willing to help combat terrorism both home and abroad. While Assad’s Ba’ath government can be criticized for stifling political freedom within Syria and favoring certain religious/ethnic groups (especially Alawites) within his regime (mostly in the state’s security apparatus), Syrians were able to live in safety and were not subject to religious persecution.
Since the civil war began, Syria has been criticized for the military support it has received from Hezbollah. However, it can be argued that this criticism is mainly due to the fact that Hezbollah is an extension of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The fact is, Hezbollah is a legitimate political entity in Lebanon. Support the group provides the Assad regime (most likely following Tehran’s directive) can be considered the same as state support the opposition is receiving from all over the world. Yet, as the opposition is mostly composed of radical groups, with no established legitimacy (except for solid links to Al-Qaida), it can be argued that Hezbollah’s support of Assad is much more legitimate. While Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization by both the U.S. and the E.U., the E.U.’s decision on July 22, 2013 to brand Hezbollah’s military wing a terrorist organization was a political move made in response to the group’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War and the branding of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization by the U.S. appears to be political in nature as well; having placed Hezbollah on the U.S. Department of State’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations in 1999, removed it in 2001 following the September 11 attacks on the U.S. (which Hezbollah condemned) and later placing Hezbollah back on it following increased tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
Assad’s regime stands in stark contrast to the Syrian opposition, which is composed of a large number of foreign fighters with radical ideologies; most of which promote sectarian violence and strict adherence to a radical Salafist beliefs. Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)/Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are two perfect examples of the radical elements which have hijacked the insurgency; the latter being so extreme that Al-Qaeda has publicly distanced itself from the organization (Sly, 2014). These two organizations are considered terrorist groups and are two of the primary driving forces behind the insurgency. With a flood of foreign assistance (both financial and military) from their supporters, these radical elements have established a strong foothold in Syria and have only recently been set back due to infighting. These groups have continued to attack religious and ethnic minorities (Shiites, Christians, Druze, etc.) throughout Syria and have also targeted Sunnis who do not support their radical agenda’s (Komireddi, 2012). What is most concerning about these groups is the shear brutality which they have exercised in promoting their ideologies. The recent crucification of two Syrian rebels by the ISIS serves as evidence of the level of violence these groups are willing undertake.
When one analyzes certain aspects of the opposition such as organic (Syrian) composition, religious tolerance, level of radicalization, and the propensity to utilize terrorism as a means to achieve strategic goals, it is clear that the Assad regime is the lesser of two evils. Currently the number of foreign fighters in Syria is estimated to be roughly 8,000. These fighters come from all over the globe, are mostly Sunni, and have shown they are more than willing to resort to terrorist tactics to establish a Salafist caliphate across the Middle East. This outcome will certainly destabilize the region and could have a host of negative repercussions.
The Composition of the Syrian opposition is an extremely important factor to consider in establishing its legitimacy, as it can be argued that the more organic an insurgency is, the more that insurgency represent the will of the people. The Syrian opposition is composed of over 1,000 organizations; all of which receive military and financial support from foreign entities and host a large percentage of foreign fighters within their ranks. As of now, it’s estimated that there are over eight thousand foreign fighters in Syria out of a total of 100,000 (eight percent). Of the total number of fighters, fifty percent are radical Islamists. While it has proven difficult to get an exact figure of the foreign composition of the opposition, a study last year conducted by Flashpoint Partners and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy took a sample of 280 deceased foreign fighters and broke this number down into national origin. The results show that the majority of foreign fighters (in sequential order) are coming from Libya (59), Tunasia/Saudi Arabia (both tied at 44), Egypt (27), Jordan (32) and Lebanon (22) (Brunker, 2013). While it is obvious, when looking at these figures that the insurgency is largely organic, eight percent is still a rather large number of foreign fighters, especially when considering the fact that a majority of these fighters are radicals who hold high positions within the insurgency and are receiving support from foreign entities; promoting the strategic interests of their sponsors.
The religious tolerance of the opposition, while largely something which is determined by the will of the majority, is something which is very important to consider as well, not when gauging the legitimacy of the insurgency, but rather, when gauging the morality of supporting it. Since the onset of the Syrian Civil War, sectarian violence has been systemic; almost all of it targeting religious minorities and committed by Sunni factions within the opposition. The sectarian nature of the conflict has manifested as a struggle for supremacy between the Alawites (Shiite Muslims), who support the Assad regime, and Sunnis, who make up the majority of both the country and the opposition. Recently, many fighters have emphasized the religious nature of the conflict rather than the political. This is disturbing, because it serves as a possible indicator of either a rocky transition should the opposition come out on top, or, should the Assad regime prevail, a long term sectarian insurgency like the one which has continued in Iraq since the U.S. led occupation. Slogans such as “The Christians to Beirut, the Alawites to the grave” have become popular slogans within the opposition (Adams, 2012), with salafist members referencing fatwas, such as those issued by Ibn Taymiyyah (1058-1111) and Al-Ghazli (1058-1111); the later stating that Alawites “apostatize in matters of blood, money, marriage and butchering, so it is a duty to kill them.” Due to the violent sectarian nature of the opposition, the outlook for religious minorities in Syria looks grim should the opposition overthrow the Assad regime. It is most likely that religious minorities will face widespread extermination and persecution should the regime fall. While Assad promoted religious freedom in Syria, the insurgency seeks to install a hardline sectarian government with no tolerance for those of differing religious beliefs. Given this reality, support of the Syrian opposition has led to widespread human rights abuse; something that will grow in size and scope should the Assad regime fall.
The vast majority of the Syrian opposition is composed of radical elements whose members seek to establish a Sunni government in Syria and eventually create a Sunni caliphate across the Middle East. In order to achieve this end, they are willing to do anything necessary; including committing widespread atrocities against civilians. According to a recent study by IHS Janes, 39,000 fighters of the 100,000 strong insurgency, fight for organizations that promote a radical sectarian ideology (Kelley, 2013). This suggests that roughly 39 percent of the opposition supports a violent sectarian agenda. The systemic radicalization of the opposition has manifested in the propensity of its various elements to resort to acts of terrorism. The intentional targeting of non-combatants, its brutal executions of pro-government fighters and the violent rhetoric of the opposition is proof of its radicalization. While the rhetoric emerging from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been relatively civil, it is important to realize that the FSA is a mixture of fighters and organizations; all having different ideologies, most of which are of a violent sectarian nature (Jones, 2014). While the west officially recognizes the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) as the sole representative of the Syrian people and considers the FSA to be the sole legitimate armed opposition group, because the organization is a melting pot of differing ideologies, this support is indirectly supporting the rise of radical Islamists. According to Rania Abouzeid (2014),
“The Syrian revolution—and the hesitant, confused international reaction to it—paved the way for the resurrection of a militant Islam that would turn vast regions of Iraq and Syria into borderless jihadi strongholds and inch closer to redrawing the map of the Middle East—in practical terms if not on paper.”
It appears, at this time, that a large portion of the Syrian opposition is composed of radical Islamists who are thriving off external support and follow a violent sectarian ideology. While the number of foreign fighters is roughly 8,000, these fighters are well trained, well -funded and have become increasingly prominent figures in the uprising. They also may be serving the strategic interests of their sponsors, from who they receive a majority of their support. This support has subsequently led to widespread human rights abuses and is responsible for the growth of terrorist organizations like the ISIS and other groups such as JN. Should the Assad regime fall, radical Islamists are currently in the best position to seize control in the ensuing power vacuum that will follow the regime’s demise. Once these Salafists are in power, a genocide campaign will likely begin against religious minorities in Syria and the nation will become a safe haven for all Salafi Jihadis. Allowing Syria to become the beacon of hope for radical Islamists would be compounded should the Iraqi government also succumb to the tide of radical Islam; potentially leading to the downfall of the Gulf monarchies and the establishment of a violent, sectarian and anti-western Sunni caliphate across the Middle East. This very likely possibility needs to be considered by the Syrian oppositions primary sponsors, the Gulf states and the U.S.
For the Gulf states, the support for the insurgency can perhaps be attributed to their strategic objective of establishing a Sunni caliphate across the Middle East to counter Iran’s influence in the region. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are currently the largest supporters of the Syrian opposition and have continued to provide the insurgency with financial and material support with little regard to the atrocities some of these groups are committing. However, with the recent resurgence of violence in Iraq, this support could potentially lead to blowback if the insurgency begins to spread throughout the region. While states such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and Qatar wish to establish a Sunni caliphate for strategic reasons, they also see Islamists as a threat to their power. While these groups have served as proxies for their Gulf sponsors, they also pose a serious threat to their Western friendly monarchies (Lee, al-Qatari, & al-Rebhy, 2014). The recent violence in Iraq has shown that these groups have evolved to a dangerous level and have become an increasingly destabilizing force across the region. Should the Gulf states continue their support for the Syrian opposition, the may indirectly be contributing to their future demise.
For the U.S. and its allies, support of the opposition could result in the total destabilization of the Middle East. With the U.S. and Europe establishing friendlier ties with Iran, having Shiite partners in the region to counter the spread of radical Islam would support their long term strategic interests and could lead to a host of future benefits. While the U.S. government appears to support the opposition with the hopes of winning popular support throughout the Middle East, it has had the opposite effect and has given rise to increasingly anti-western sentiment throughout the region and has resulted in the strengthening of violent terrorist groups with regional ambitions. While the U.S. and its European partners have continued to support the FSA to avoid being labeled as sponsors of terrorism, the unorganized nature of the insurgency, which is composed of a wide spectrum of individuals and organizations, all with varying ideologies and strategic goals has led to a blurring of the lines. Differentiating friend and foe has become nearly impossible, meaning that support for one organization in particular is nearly impossible as many of these groups and their members work in tandem with other, less savory organizations.
Should support for the Syrian insurgency continue, the results could prove catastrophic for the Middle East. The rise and spread of radical Islam, the creation of violent sectarian regimes, the fall of the Gulf monarchies and the destabilization of the region are all potential outcomes which will continue to remain highly likely should foreign sponsors continue to fund the Syrian opposition. These sponsors need to look past any potential short term gains related to this sponsorship (which are small at best) and look at the potential long term impact such sponsorship will have on the stability of the Middle East
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Sly, L. (2014, February 3). Al-Qaeda disavows any ties with radical Islamist ISIS group in Syria, Iraq. Retrieved from The Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/al-qaeda-disavows-any-ties-with-radical-islamist-isis-group-in-syria-iraq/2014/02/03/2c9afc3a-8cef-11e3-98ab-fe5228217bd1_story.html
Westall, S. (2014, June 29). ISIL crucifies eight rival fighters, says monitoring group. Retrieved from Reuters: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/06/29/us-syria-crisis-rivals-idUSKBN0F40HX20140629