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.
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.
While radicalism is growing among the Syrian opposition, the trend is still reversible. But first, policymakers in the West must concede to one inconvenient truth: Failure to intervene in Syria is very likely to open the floodgates of instability to the entire region. As Syria continues to destabilize, the jihadist infiltration which took the spotlight in Jordan last month will surely become the norm for key Western allies in the region, including Turkey, Israel, and even Saudi Arabia.
In order to bring down the Assad regime while preserving the possibility of a democratic transition, the West must undermine the influence of jihadist rebels. Beyond working to identify reliable, moderate leaders in the rebel movement and providing communications equipment, it must advance the prestige and fighting capability of moderate militias by providing advanced weaponry. Militia units joining the fight will be much more likely to shave their beards and forgo jihadist symbols if it means acquiring much needed surface-to-air stinger missiles to halt relentless air raids on their communities.
It’s a risk for decisionmakers in the West. But at the current pace, rebels are likely to acquire such weapons sooner or later, whether they are stinger missiles distributed under US control or heat-seaking SA-7s smuggled out of Libya by Al Qaeda-linked smugglers.
Next week, Secretary Clinton travels to Doha for a last-ditch effort to unite the Syrian opposition. She must present a new approach, and follow through with action. The US must show Syrian rebels that America is a viable alternative to jihadists. And the US must restore its leadership prestige to its allies across the Arab world.
Washington must also improve assistance to its allies on each of Syria’s borders, and help them stem the infiltration of foreign fighters, including the use of drone patrols and intelligence cooperation. US Special Forces units that are stationed in Jordan to keep an eye on Assad’s chemical weapons must be put to work curbing jihadist infiltration alongside an increasingly desperate Jordanian security apparatus.
Last, the US must pressure Gulf states to crack down on those in their midst who are funding jihadists, proving that the West is serious about taking a lead role in solving what has become the most crucial pan-Arab issue since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
It’s a tall order indeed, particularly as both US presidential candidates seem hesitant to involve a war-weary America in another conflict in the region. But as the jihadists of the Middle East are bound to demonstrate, failure to properly end the conflict in Syria soon will pave the way for more conflicts to come.
The US doesn’t need to enter a ground or air war in Syria. But it must significantly step up its game. Starting now.