War crimes and the fantasy of 'controlling' Syria's rebels

An atrocity in the strategic Syrian town of Saraqeb is a reminder that the landscape of that country's civil war is a place where angels fear to tread.

(Xvlun at Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.5)
And after they successfully storm the castle? What then?

If US officials think they're going to find Syrian allies to prevent war atrocities, or be able to take swift control of Syria in the event of Assad's defeat and steer it in a pro-US direction, they are going to be sorely disappointed.

As evidenced by a graphic video uploaded to YouTube yesterday that shows a terrified group of at least a dozen men, defeated fighters for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, huddled together on a bare concrete floor in a battle-scared building in the market town of Saraqeb, Syria, the other day as their scowling captors, kicked and cursed them into a pile before executing them.

The jumpy footage shows the following: Men in rags, many stripped of their shoes. Some appear dazed from the wounds of a battle they'd just lost. Others appear to be hyperventilating out their last prayers and thoughts. One pleads for his life. A rebel walks among the prisoners, getting in a few last kicks to the head of one of them.

Then, the cries of "God is great" from the triumphant murderers are drowned out by a buzzsaw of automatic rifle fire.

This latest atrocity is hardly out of character for Syria's civil war. Pro-government troops massacre captives too, and the Assad regime has been bloodthirsty in its torture of not just captured fighters but their family members.

Looking for good guys in this war? They are few and far between.

The execution appears to have been carried out by one of the jihadi militias that have grown ever more prevalent in the fight against Assad. Even the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based group that supports the uprising against Syria's Baathist regime, suggests that the murders were carried out by an Al Qaeda-inspired rebel group. Rami Abdelrahman of the observatory told Reuters that the killings were carried out by the Jabhat al-Nusra militia.

But what happened at Saraqeb is about more than the prevalence of jihadis in Syria's civil war. The "Free Syrian Army" is a nice concept. In practice, however, the fighters against Assad are a loosely affiliated patchwork of militias, with no unified command.

The behavior of these irregular units varies widely, as do their sources of funding. Some groups have received a trickle of communications and non-lethal aid from the likes of the US. Others have received weapons from states like Qatar or right private donors in fellow Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia.

Reliance on Syrian exiles

The influence of the exiled Syrian National Council – which Secretary Clinton declared a failure Wednesday when she announced that the US was withdrawing support – over fighters on the ground is near zero.

So in that sense, the Obama administration is right to look to spend its money and political influence elsewhere. But if Clinton or anyone else in the government thinks they are going to find Syrian allies to steer it in a pro-US direction, they are going to be disappointed.

On Wednesday, Clinton dismissed the utility of working with Syrian exiles on shaping events in Syria. “There has to be a representation of those who are on the front lines fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom," she said.

Yes, certainly, those are the people who will shape a post-Assad Syria. And the failure of the US reliance on exiles in Iraq, such as Ahmad Chalabi, to secure US interests, hardly needs repeating.

Look at Libya

But you have only to look to Libya to understand how difficult it is to exert influence after a triumphant rebellion in states where politics has merely been another word for patronage for decades, where the lust for revenge is strong, and where the rebellion itself is backed with Islamist militants who not very long ago were fighting US forces in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Libya is a far more religiously and ethnically homogenous place than Syria. The sectarian shadow that now looms over Syria, with the bulk of the rebellion composed of Sunnis fighting a regime dominated by the minority Alawite sect of the Assads, is happily absent from Libya. But even there, the future remains murky. The Sept. 11 assault on the US intelligence and diplomatic outposts in Benghazi that claimed four American lives, is evidence enough of that. The exiled civilian leaders of the uprising in Libya have exerted questionable, limited influence over the militias who fought and defeated Qaddafi last year.

The militias, it turns out, have ideas of their own about the future. They have fought among themselves over the spoils of victory, and continue to wield guns in what was hoped to be Libya's emerging democratic politics.

What is the current US plan for Syria?

 Next week, Clinton heads to Qatar for a discussion on how regional powers will work to reshape the "leadership structure" (in her words) of the uprising. She'll be bearing a list of names of Syrians the US wants promoted to the senior ranks.

The choice of Qatar is an interesting one, given that monarchy's steadfast support for Islamist militias first in Libya and now in Syria. These are not the type of groups the US wants to see strengthened in either place. Qatar, by its actions, clearly disagrees, and has been far more aggressive and responsive in funneling support to them. Qatar does not share the US alarm at the jihadi factions fighting against Assad.

More nationalist rebels have expressed frustration at all this, saying that the character of the Syrian rebellion would have been far different if the US had provided support to them sooner.

Scott Peterson wrote for us yesterday from Aleppo:

In the final debate last week, President Obama said that 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.”

More radical jihadists?

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.” 

Abu Baraa's complaint is a common one, though not necessarily true.

During the US occupation of Iraq, the US provided plenty of weapons and support to its erstwhile allies there, yet jihadis nevertheless poured in Iraq from Saudi Arabia. And Jordan. And Libya. And Syria.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a native of Zarqa, Jordan, and the leader of what became Al Qaeda in Iraq, was US public enemy No. 1, until his death at the hands of the US in 2006. His followers plague the country to this day, while the Iraqi government, led by the Shiite Islamist Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has watched in horror at the unfolding prospect of the very people who fought the rise of a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq coming to power in their Syrian neighbor.

Jordan hasn't been happy about events either. Zarqawi's band of jihadis hated the Jordanian monarchy as much as they did the Shiites of Iraq, and carried out a series of horrific terrorist bombings in their home country in the last decade. In October, AFP reported that Jordan had arrested two cousins of Zarqawi as they returned home after fighting for five months against the Assad regime in Syria.

The Syrian war, its factions and regional implications, grow more entangled and complicated by the day. Can the intervention of outside powers tip the outcome in favor of the rebels, in a general sense? Certainly. Will the weapons provided end up being used in further atrocities? Quite likely.

Atrocities happen in war, and far more frequently when there aren't accountable officers to stop it. Perhaps that's a price worth paying to be rid of Assad.

But trying to shape what comes next is another matter. Recent history indicates that usually eludes the grasp of America and its allies.

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