The Syrian rebels have just pledged allegiance to Al-Queda. Or at least, Al-Nusra have. This is no small thing as they have been described as “the most aggressive and successful arm of the rebel force”. The ideological disposition of some of the rebels should be no surprise to anyone that has been paying attention to the conflict. Syria may be seen as a microcosm of the current Cold War being played out by Saudi Arabia and Iran for the heart and soul of the Muslim world (perhaps more on this in another post). The ideologies are not Soviet Communism vs. US Capitalism in this case: it is Iranian Shia’ism and Wahhabi Sunnism. This is relevant because in any conflict, it is the extreme ends of the ideological spectrum that come out to fight during times of civil strife (think communists and nazis getting into street battles in Germany after WWI). And the Salafi types of Al-Nusra represent the ideological extreme of Sunni Islam.
This of course raises the inevitable question of whether the US and her NATO allies should be arming the rebels. Many will question the wisdom of arming rebel groups in a country which has become a hotbed of fundamentalist Islamic militancy. Not least because everyone remembers what happened the last time the US practised “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” in a certain south Asian country: it eventually ushered in the totalitarian government of the Taliban. Of course, before the electorate begin calling for arming of the Syrian opposition, serious questions need to be asked about what a post-Asad Syria would look like and whether we could prevent replacing one repressive regime (Asad) with another totalitarian one (Al-Nusar’s Islamic State of Syria). This concern should not however, stop the United States from intervening.
With over 70,000 people now dead since the beginning of the conflict, the drumbeat for more aid to topple Asad seems to be getting louder. Yet, Obama has ignored the advice of the the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon who strongly advocated vetting, training and arming selected opposition groups which have been seeking US support since the conflict began. The key words are ‘vetted’ and ‘selected’.
In learning from the past, the US could be more discriminate in who it hands its weapons to. Turkey may also have an interest in this as they are currently supplying the rebels with military hardware and so may prove to be a very powerful ally in the region. Saudi and to a lesser extent Qatar on the other hand, may consider it in their best interests to strengthen the most extreme Sunni groups in the rebels. In this case, Al-Nusra. Let us not forget that the brand of Islam espoused by the Wahhabi clerics in Saudi and that of Al-Queda affiliated groups is virtually indistinguishable.Therefore the best option may be for the USA to take over from Saudi and Qatar who cannot be trusted to not supply the most extreme groups like Al-Nusra, and to supply moderate groups like the Free Syrian Army instead who have distanced themselves from Al-Nusra saying “We don’t support the ideology of al-Nusra,”.
There is hope while more moderate forces in Syria may be empowered which can then supplant Al-Nusra as Syria’s premier rebel fighting force, topple Bashar Al-Asad and usher in the era of a new democratic Syria which will no doubt have fundamentalist groups in a parliament, but who will not be ruling the country wholesale via force of arms. The beginning of that is taking a proactive role in arming selected moderate factions and not leaving it to the Saudis who would strengthen the already powerful hand of the likes of Al-Nusra, thus repeating the mistakes that the US committed in Afghanistan by allowing Pakistan to decide who should get the weapons. Ultimately allowing the totalitarian Islamic regime of the Taliban to proceed to take Afghanistan back to the medieval ages.
And that is not an option.
There is hope yet.
Goodbye from The Wayward Soldier.