Support for jihadists in Syria swells as US backing of rebels falls short
US reluctance to provide weapons and cash to Syrian rebels is increasing the appeal of joining with well-funded and well-armed jihadists, many of them from abroad.
The man had returned to his house one day to find it had been destroyed by a bomb, and his wife and children among the dead. "Give me one reason why I should not join the jihadists!" the man cried, recalls the doctor. "They will give me my revenge, while all the rest of the world drinks a cup of tea and says, 'Oh, it's so sad.' "
Aleppo has become the crucible of the 20-month rebellion against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. But despite a rising death toll and a shared aim of removing the Syrian leader, US officials have stopped short of giving decisive support to rebel forces, citing fears that weapons and cash would find their way to Islamist fighters with an anti-US agenda – many of them from abroad – who have joined the fight.
Still, as the desperation in Syria mounts, with tens of thousands dead and no end to the conflict in sight, rebel commanders say the American effort to limit rebel capabilities may be spurring exactly what the United States had hoped to avoid, by extending the war and deepening the influence of Islamist fighters.
Some are Syrians looking for unbridled revenge by joining Islamist units that routinely take on frontline combat. Many others are foreign fighters coming from places as diverse as Chechnya and Iraq, where they often have had past combat experience.
Rebels have received small arms, ammunition, and communications gear from the US and other sources. Yet heavier equipment has not arrived, such as surface-to-air missiles, which rebel commanders say would turn the tide of battle in their favor by stopping Syrian aircraft and helicopters from bombing rebel-controlled territory.
Arming the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), or not, has become a hot US presidential election issue. In the final debate last week, President Obama said the US was doing “everything we can” to help the opposition, but warned that “to get more entangled militarily in Syria is a serious step,” and that the US had to be “absolutely certain that we know who we are helping.”
Likewise, Republican candidate Mitt Romney said he would “make sure they have the arms necessary to defend themselves,” as long as weapons don’t get into “the wrong hands. Those arms could be used to hurt us down the road.”
But on the ground, many Syrians say the US reluctance to support their cause is yielding more jihadists, and more radical ones.
And it's questionable whether American reluctance is significantly hampering the flow of weapons to jihadists.
"If the Americans do not give us weapons, then the jihadists will get them from somewhere else," says Abu Baraa, a local Aleppo commander. In his view, current US policy "has opened the doors for jihadist Islam, not for moderates.”
Another result, often voiced in this embattled city, is that even though the US shares rebel aims, its limited support for the fight itself has ignited widespread anger toward Washington – and even prompted speculation that the US wants the Syrian regime to win.
"Before the revolution, there were no Al Qaeda here," says Abu Mohammed, the doctor. "When this regime makes these crimes, they come, and come to help.
"The US says their [pro-democracy line only]; Al Qaeda says, 'We will help.' So what do we do, smile to the US and kick out Al Qaeda?" he adds. "The longer [the war] takes, the more of them there will be."
US is making 'excuses'
Strategically, the US also sees through the prism of Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the CIA provided Stinger missiles and training to anti-Soviet mujahideen fighters, only to watch them eventually morph into anti-American militant groups such as Al Qaeda.
The geopolitical stakes are high in Syria, too, where Russian, Chinese, and Iranian support for the regime – along with that of the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah – has ensured the longest and most lethal anti-regime battle so far of the Arab uprisings.
"We hoped the American government would help us in our revolution, because it fights for the democratic flag in the world – and toppled Saddam Hussein in the name of democracy," says a Syrian judge who runs a temporary court in a rebel-controlled district of Aleppo. He gave his name as Abu Ibrahim.
"But Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did nothing. America failed us," says the secular Syrian, whose tailored suit and pressed shirt contrasted sharply with the motley collection of rebels who man the frontline a few streets away. "This whole thing about jihadists is an excuse not to support us."
"The jihadists in Aleppo are so few, and we take them as a burden. We don't need them – we need their weapons, their fighters," Abu Ibrahim says. "We are ashamed to tell them to get out. They came to fight with us and we must appreciate that. We can't stop them because the West has not come to help."
We 'need' Al Qaeda
Rebel commanders say that Washington's fears are overblown, and that Syrians will not accept any future control by a minority of Islamist ideologues.
"The Americans have Islamophobia. They are afraid of any Muslim, and think he's a copy of Osama bin Laden," says Sheikh Mahmoud Mujadami, a cleric and rebel commander in a western district of Aleppo.
"If the Americans study Islam, they would see many shared things: justice, democracy, problem solving," says Mr. Mujadami. "The jihadists are so few, and they don't know anything of the religion of Islam. They have a brain like a rock; they can't change their thinking. [But] they are strong in the field."
The Americans, he says, are "mistaken" about the threat posed by jihadis. Even rebel commanders who present an overtly religious face assert that Islamic radicalism can't take root in Syria – and that their top priority now is ending Assad's rule.
"The jihadis are 10 percent of the FSA. They are strong in the field, they think they are defending Muslims in Syria – they will never fight Syrians or cause trouble," says Abu Baraa, the local Aleppo commander, who sports a thick beard. On the wall in his headquarters in a downtown school is a three-foot-tall gilt replica of the door of the Kaaba, the monument in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, toward which every Muslim faces for daily prayers. Military-green cloth hangs on either side of the large golden Kaaba door to resemble the material draped on the monument. Folded prayer mats are nearby.
"Now [jihadists] are helping us, and we are grateful. That man is fighting for me, and I respect that," says Abu Baraa. "The jihadists say, 'When we finish here, we will go elsewhere.' They are not from Al Qaeda, they are defending Muslims."
Abu Baraa says the US "doesn't care how many Syrians die – for them we are like bugs."
Meanwhile, current US policy has been a gift for jihadists, he argues. It "has opened the doors for jihadist Islam, not for moderates," he says.
"The jihadis here do not have hatred of Americans. They believe in helping people who are suffering and enslaved," he adds, noting that the anti-US insurgency in Iraq was fueled by the 2003 invasion, and events such as abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.
"You have to know the difference between jihadists and Al Qaeda," he says. "There are some Al Qaeda fighters here, but we need them now."