Lack of US, Western intervention in Syria helps jihadists
Hillary Clinton heads to Doha, Qatar next week to push for a shakeup in the Syrian opposition. The West must step up its game by providing advanced weapons to Syrian rebels. Fears of such weapons aiding jihadist fighters are overblown, even as Western hesitancy strengthens jihadists.
Few would argue that US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has her work cut out for her as she heads to Doha, Qatar next week. There, she will push for a reshaping of Syria’s opposition leadership. The once-innocent popular uprising that captivated the world has degenerated into a chaotic mixture of war crimes, growing religious fundamentalism, and political uncertainty. Indeed, Syria’s uprising has become increasingly synonymous with just about everything that’s wrong with the Arab Spring.Skip to next paragraph
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Arming the rebels seems the obvious way out of this quagmire, creating an opposition force strong enough to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But the United States is concerned that American-funded weapons would fall into the hands of jihadists fighting among the Syrian opposition. Jordan, meanwhile, recently apprehended 11 members of a Syrian-born jihadist terror cell poised to stage “destabilizing” attacks throughout Jordan.
The jihadist phenomenon in Syria, however, is not only exaggerated, but reversible – at least for now. Indeed, atrocities by the Syrian opposition have been committed by moderate and extremist rebel factions alike. What’s important in the arm-or-not-arm discussion is how the opposition as a whole visualizes the future of Syria.
Of an estimated 100,000 people involved in hostilities against the Assad regime, only several hundred seek to turn Syria into phase one of a global Islamic caliphate, according to Syrian social media and contacts on the ground. On the other hand, several thousand adhere to a moderate-Islamist ideology similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood. This shows that the vast majority of those fighting Assad did not enter the conflict to promote a particular stream of political Islam, but rather to defend their neighborhoods from Assad’s military.
After decades of secular rule, the majority of the Syrian civil and armed opposition still seeks a relatively civil state under some influence of Islamic sharia law. Extremist Salafism and other ultra-conservative trends known for religious intolerance and anti-Western sentiment are limited to a minority of the population in comparison to other states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, jihadists are only a fraction of the foreign fighters streaming into Syria to support the rebels. Many moderate Islamist and secular fighters continue to join rebel ranks with pan-Arab motivations brought about by the Arab Spring. Expatriate Syrians are also returning home to fight.
Unfortunately, the lack of Western intervention is contributing to the rise of Islamism and jihadism among the opposition. And it’s fueling feelings of abandonment by the local population.
Across Syria, many moderate rebel militias are growing beards and taking on other Islamist features in order to compete for funds donated by jihadists and their supporters in the Persian Gulf. The growing strength and capability of well-funded jihadist militias has forced prominent commanders in the opposition Free Syrian Army to vie for their cooperation by sliding into religious conservatism. How genuine the shift is remains to be seen.