Gordon Campbell on the latest messy falling out among Syria’s rebels

Routinely, US foreign policy in the Middle East seems to suffer from a karmic backlash. Ten years ago, the Iraq invasion was supposed to produce a democratic state that further isolate Iran’s Shia revolution. Instead, the March 2003 invasion has installed in Baghdad a Shia-dominated partner state to Iran. The invasion has significantly strengthened the power of Teheran. To achieve that end, the US has spent an estimated $2 trillion, killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and sent millions of them into exile, including an entire generation’s investment in education and technological expertise. It wasn’t supposed to turn out like that.

Much the same thing seems to be happening in Syria right now. For decades, the secular Assad regime would justify itself by saying it had driven out the corrupt class of incompetents who ruled Syria before them, and without the Assads, the country would return to chaos. I know, dictators always say that. Except in Syria, that’s what does seem to be happening. With the Assad regime on its death bed, the Syrian opposition is proving that it couldn’t run a handcart, let alone a country. And while the opposition politicians bicker among themselves, many of the most effective fighters are not the heroes of democracy, but Islamic extremists pouring in from all over the region. Should the US openly arm the Syrian opposition? The Republicans in Congress, never shy of advocating a war they won’t have to fight personally, say “Yes.” But hang on. Wasn’t pouring money and weapons into the arsenal of the mujahideen in the 1980s a big part of what caused that subsequent problem in Afghanistan?

The catalyst for this week’s meltdown of the Syrian opposition was the decision to nominate Ghassan Hitto, a relatively unknown Syrian-born Net entrepreneur who has been living in Texas, to head a proposed interim government. Hitto’s first reported message: no negotiation with the regime in Damascus! This almost immediately caused the resignation of Moaz al-Khatib, a moderate Sunni preacher who currently heads the so called Syrian Opposition Coalition, which had proposed to initiate negotiations with Assad. As the Washington Post reports, this isn’t a good sign.

[Khatib’s] departure plunged the opposition into disarray at a time when the United States and its Western allies are stepping up their support for moderates opposed to Assad’s regime. Khatib’s coalition was expected to play a key role in identifying the recipients and channeling the assistance.

The coalition later issued a statement saying that its members had rejected Khatib’s resignation and had asked him to continue in a “management” capacity, leaving his status unclear……There nonetheless seems to be little doubt that an initiative launched last fall in the Qatari capital, Doha, to create an inclusive and representative opposition body is falling apart, said Amr al-Azm, a history professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio who is Syrian and supports the opposition. “The coalition is on verge of disintegrating,” he said. “It’s a big mess.”

On the ground meanwhile, according to an AFP/Wall St Journal report carried earlier this week in the Pakistan newspaper Dawn, the Americans have been doing their best to sort out their enemies from their friends among the Syrian opposition fighters:

The CIA has sent officers to Turkey to help vet rebels who receive arms shipments from Gulf allies, the report said. But administration officials cited concerns about some weapons going to Islamists, the paper noted. In Iraq, the CIA has been directed by the White House to work with elite counterterrorism units to help the Iraqis counter the flow of Al Qaeda-linked fighters across the border with Syria.. The West favours fighters aligned with the Free Syrian Army, which supports the Syrian Opposition Coalition political group…..The move comes as the al Nusra Front, the main Al Qaeda-linked group operating in Syria, is deepening its ties to the terrorist organisation’s central leadership in Pakistan, The Journal said.

The Jabhat al-Nusra Front mentioned in that report is hardly the poster child for democratic reform. Last December, The US declared it to be a terrorist organization. There’s more about it here. Yesterday, the conservative Washington Times reported on the Syrian opposition meltdown in an article gloomily headlined “Push For Assad’s Ouster in Syria Weakened”:

Al-Nusra has claimed responsibility for most of the deadliest suicide bombings against regime and military facilities and, as a result, has gained popularity among some rebels. However, the group has alienated secular-minded fighters, which is one reason the U.S. has not equipped the rebels with weapons…Western nations worry that al-Nusra or other rebels will get their hands on Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile — but are as concerned that Assad will use them against his people, although he has vowed not to.

Right. Helping the local al Qaeda franchisees in Syria to get their hands on a chemical weapons stockpile? Hmmm. That doesn’t sound like a really good idea. As usual, Joshua Landis on Syria Comment has had the most thorough coverage of the political infighting, and he offers a useful update on the military situation as well:

The Islam Front and Jabhat al-Nusra are gaining strength. They are flexing their growing muscle after taking Raqqa and clearing out the Deir az-Zur region. Now they are headed down the Eastern highway toward Damascus. The forces around Aleppo and in the Northwest will have to come through Hama and Homs, which is impassable. Already al-Nusra has a strong foothold in the Damascus region in the Palestinian neighborhood of Yarmouk, around the Jabal Druze, and in the Daraya-Adhamiya region of Damascus.

The US and British are trying to build up forces around Damascus as well, in order to take the capital. They are working hand in glove with Saudis and particularly the Jordanians. Hence the many stories about US training missions in Jordan and cooperation with Jordanian intelligence. Some believe that the US, British and French may be developing a strategy to spearhead a move on Damascus before the Islamic Front and al-Nusra can capture it for themselves.

It is not clear how committed the US and the West are to manning up the opposition in the South of Syria to gain the jump on the growing Islamic tide washing down from the North. Many Damascenes are fearful of being overrun by the North. The time-honored divide between North and South Syria is again gaining relevance. There is precedence for war between north and south. In 1954, at the end of General Shishakli’s four year rule of Syria, which developed into the country’s first real dictatorship, Syria split in half…..

As it turns out, Americans are not alone in finding it hard to pick sides. Or rather, to find a workable way to deliver military support to only those groups that the US supports on the side it has picked to support. Lebanon is also split, and the veteran Druze leader Walid Jumblatt – who used to support Assad Snr – has now declared his support for the al-Nusra Front, despite those al Qaeda links mentioned above. Jumblatt explained his decision a few weeks ago in this Middle East Online report, which also mentions the wider picture in Lebanon:

Lebanon’s politicians and society are deeply divided over the war in Syria, with the Sunni-led opposition backing the revolt and Shiite movement Hezbollah along with its government allies supporting Assad’s regime.

Syria is a mess, alright. And while no one will shed tears over Assad, his fall has the potential to (a) encourage the Islamists in the opposition ranks to press on to the Golan Heights to confront Israel (b) spark a genocidal pogrom against the Alawite minority in Syria (c) encourage the Syrian Kurds to break away and join Iraqi Kurdistan in a way that could de-stabilise Turkey (d) further polarize Lebanon (see above) (e) spark a re-run of the 1980s Sunni vs Shia war between Iran and Iraq (f) swamp the region in refugees, given that there are already hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Jordan alone. Syria has become a regional disaster, with nary a Good Guy in sight. Its budding factionalism looks a lot like Iraq, after it became “liberated” from its own secular dictator.