The United States this week became the latest country to recognize the Syrian
National Coalition, formed in Qatar a month ago, as the legitimate leadership of
the Syrian opposition.
The formation of a joint military council aligned
with the coalition was also announced in Antalya, Turkey. At the same time,
Washington designated Jabhat al-Nusra, the powerful Salafi armed group in Syria,
as a terrorist organization.
All of these moves indicate that a coherent
US and Western policy toward the rebel side in the Syrian civil war is now
emerging. This policy is in line with the Obama administration’s broader
regional orientation and meets with the approval of key EU governments It is
also the preferred direction of Turkey and Qatar, the two countries that led the
international response to the Syrian rebellion during the long period when the
West preferred not to get directly involved.
The intention is to align
with and strengthen Muslim Brotherhood-associated elements while painting Salafi
forces as the sole real Islamist danger.
At the same time, secular forces
are ignored or brushed aside.
This dynamic is plainly visible in the
composition of the new military council. The founder of the Free Syrian Army,
secular former Syrian Air Force colonel Riad Asaad, is notably absent.
Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh, the first of his rank to defect to the rebels, is
not there either. Sheikh is known for his fierce opposition to the Muslim
Hussein Haj Ali, the highest ranking officer to defect so
far, is absent as well.
A Reuters report on the new joint military
council calculated that the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies account for
about two-thirds of the 263 men who met in Antalya and formed the new body.
Salafi commanders are also there.
The new council is headed by Brigadier
Selim Idriss, who is described as a non-ideological military man. But his
deputies, Abdel-basset Tawil of Idlib and Abdel-qader Saleh of Aleppo governate
are associated with the Salafi trend.
The domination by the Muslim
Brotherhood of the new military council mirrors the movement’s leading position
in the new civilian leadership body – the Syrian National Coalition. The leader
of this coalition is Ahmed Mouaz al-Khatib, former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in
Khatib is closely associated with the Damascus branch of the
The leader of the new coalition has a long history of
anti-Semitic, anti-Western and anti-Shi’a remarks (he praised Saddam Hussein,
for example, for “terrifying the Jews” and wrote an article asking if Facebook
was an “American-Israeli intelligence website”). He is also an admirer of the
Qatar-based Muslim Brotherhood preacher Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
the body headed by Khatib, the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National
Council controls around 27 of the 65 seats on the executive body of the new
coalition. There are also Islamists and fellow travelers among the non-SNC
The Brotherhood is by far the best organized single body
within the coalition. One secular delegate at the first full meeting of the
coalition accused the Brotherhood of “pushing more of its hawks into the
coalition, although it already has half of the seats.”
So the emergence
of the Syrian National Coalition and the associated Joint Military Council means
that the West and its regional Sunni allies are now backing a Muslim
Brotherhood-dominated coalition as the preferred replacement for the Assad
The al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra organization, now designated
a terror organization by the US, is a powerful jihadi force on the
The Western desire to declare this group off limits is entirely
understandable. But the attempt to build it up as a kind of bogeyman to be
contrasted with so-called “moderate” Islamist groups has little basis in
reality. The difference between the Salafis and the Muslim
Brotherhood-affiliated groups is one of degree, not of kind.
this, the US designation has led to a furious response across the board among
the Syrian rebels. Twenty-nine rebel groups have now issued a statement saying
“we are all Jabhat al-Nusra.”
Their perception is that the US sought to
avoid contact with the armed rebels, but now wants to be involved because it
glimpses the possibility of a rebel victory. The jihadis of Jabhat al-Nusra, on
the other hand, have been there since the start and have proven themselves among
the most militarily capable of the rebel units. This perception largely accords
with the facts.
The media focus on Jabhat al-Nusra may well be
exaggerated. Even those articles claiming it is now playing a dominant role in
the fighting admit that it constitutes only a small fraction of the total number
of rebel fighters (nine percent is the number often quoted, though it is
difficult to see on what basis this suspiciously precise figure was
The focus on Jabhat al-Nusra should not obscure the fact that
the better-organized, non-Salafi, home grown Muslim Brotherhood elements that
the US is backing are no less anti-Western and no less anti-Jewish.
things have been different? As with Egypt, perhaps, if the West had perceived
the risks and opportunities clearly at the start. This might have triggered a
vigorous policy of support for non- Islamist opposition and fighting elements,
which were there.
A counter-argument could also be made according to
which in the Arab world in 2012, a non- Islamist popular force able to rival the
Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis in commitment and organizational capacity
would be highly unlikely.
In any case, such a policy was never tried and
is not being tried now.
The result is that the force now facing the
retreating Assad regime is split between differing brands of Sunni Arab Islamism
– some aligned with the West, some directly opposing it, but all holding fast to
fundamentally anti-Western ideologies.
Given the level of life that has
been lost in Syria, and the presence of chemical and biological warfare programs
now in the vicinity of Islamist terror groups, it does not seem hyperbolic to
recall a stanza from Percy Shelley’s famous poem “The Revolt of Islam”: “Their
complicating lines did steep the orient sun in shadow... and all around,
darkness more dread than night was poured upon the ground.”