Drawing an Al-Qaeda Red Line

by Andrew C. McCarthy
Why is Assad’s use of WMDs so much worse than Syrian rebels’ allying with jihadists?

Have you noticed who exactly the opposing camps are in Syria’s civil war — the aspect that the side chomping at the bit for American military intervention would prefer not to discuss?

In one corner, we have Bashar Assad. Unlike President Obama and his minions, who spent their first couple of years empowering Assad — Obama reopening diplomatic ties, Hillary pronouncing him a valiant “reformer,” Pelosi huddling with him, Kerry wining and dining him — many of us alleged “isolationists” on the right were never under any illusions about him. Assad is an anti-U.S. thug, the junior partner of Iran, America’s mortal enemy on the Shiite side of the Islamic-supremacist street. While the Obama administration has made an underwhelming case that the Syrian despot has used chemical weapons, let us stipulate for present purposes that the case is airtight. Let’s even concede the more dubious claim that Assad has launched more than one small-scale chemical attack.

Now on to the other corner: the Sunni Islamic supremacists, who are called “rebels” by the Beltway clerisy to avoid the inconvenience that they describe themselves as mujahideen (jihad warriors). The rebels are teeming with al-Qaeda-affiliated and al-Qaeda-inspired operatives — “extremists,” as the Obama administration and the GOP’s McCain wing call them, avoiding the inconvenience that what they are “extreme” about is Islam. Guys who ought to know better, like General Jack Keane, laughably underestimate their number at less than 4,000. But even Secretary of State Kerry conceded in congressional testimony that it is several multiples of that amount — as many as 25,000 (i.e., up to “25 percent” of a force that Kerry put at “70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists”).

Even if things were “only” as bad as Kerry suggests, that would be a frightening picture. After Benghazi, do you suppose empowering — I should say, further empowering — 25,000 jihadists might be a smidge problematic? But that’s not the half of it. Kerry was desperately trying to portray the “rebels” as predominantly “moderate”; undoubtedly, he was low-balling. Moreover, no matter what their number is, al-Qaeda affiliates punch way above their weight. They are trained, organized, disciplined, and lavishly funded by Gulf states that are delighted to have them make their mayhem outside the Gulf.

Even worse, the Obama Left and the GOP’s McCain wing are applying Washington’s lunatic definition of “moderate.” By this thinking, the Islamic ummah is divided into two camps: an al-Qaeda fringe in one, and in the other the teeming millions of “moderate,” tolerant, peace-loving “democracy” activists. In this fantasy, the Muslim Brotherhood — whose name the Beltway strains to avoid uttering in discussions of Syria — is moderate . . . and never you mind the bloody catastrophe the Brothers have wrought in nearby Egypt over the last few weeks and months.

In truth, the Brotherhood is an implacably Islamic-supremacist organization that is “moderate” only by comparison with al-Qaeda, and, even then, only if we are talking about al-Qaeda’s methodology of full-time savagery — the Brothers are part-timers who, unlike al-Qaeda, think violent jihad is just one item on the sharia-installation menu. As far as ideology goes — i.e., the imperative that sharia be installed — the two are on exactly the same page. If anything, the Brotherhood’s influence over the “oppositionists” is even greater than al-Qaeda’s. The Brothers are the antithesis of moderate. They are anti-American (though they’ll happily take our help before using it against us), anti-democratic (though they’ll happily hold popular elections in Muslim-majority countries), and rabidly anti-Semitic.

Are there secular democrats in Syria? Of course there are. Just as in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, however, they are severely undermanned. The contention that there is a strong alternative force within the opposition — rebel factions that oppose Assad, and that not only oppose the Qaeda/Brotherhood factions but are capable of winning without them and then running the country despite them — is a pipedream.

The “rebels” know this even if Washington won’t come to grips with it. Colonel Fatih Hasun is General Salim Idriss’s deputy in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) — the assortment of purportedly moderate militias Senator McCain and the Obama administration claim it is in America’s interest to support. On August 22, Colonel Hasun announced that most of the senior commanders were threatening to resign from the FSA’s supreme military council because they reject two Western “red lines”: the demands that they (a) cease collaboration with al-Qaeda and (b) refrain from seizing Assad’s chemical-weapons sites. The FSA has no problem working with terrorists. Ideologically, many of its members have more in common with jihadists than they do with the West; more significantly, they know they cannot win without the jihadists.

Moreover, there’s the dirty little secret about chemical weapons: The rebels not only want them, they have them and they quite likely have used them, both in Syria and elsewhere. Al-Qaeda has been seeking to procure and use chemical weapons for over 20 years — and unlike Assad, al-Qaeda affiliates are quite likely to use them against the United States and Israel if they have the chance.

Now, I have a confession to make: I am unimpressed by the Western obsession over chemical weapons. They are ghastly, yes. But so, in the wrong hands, are bombs and jumbo jets and hollow-point bullets. To me, the shrieking over weapons of mass destruction is the international version of the Left’s domestic campaign against guns, and of a piece with its trendy revulsion against land- and sea-mines. This is the delusion that discord is caused by the song, not the singer. It is a cop-out: the pretense that there is a valid excuse for failing to grapple with the players and the ideologies that resort to violence — as if we live in a make-believe world where destructive weapons in the right hands are unnecessary to keep us safe; and where laws, conventions, and purported “norms” against various types of weapons are effective against rogues like Assad and al-Qaeda.

I’ll also confess to being even less persuaded than usual by the chemical-weapons arguments made specifically by those advocating American military intervention in Syria. They have been pushing for the administration to jump in on the side of the “rebels” all along — to arm them and abet them in the jihad against Assad. Their campaign has gotten precious little public support for a very simple reason: The American people are repulsed by the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda. For that reason, in addition to there being no national-security interest in supporting those forces, few American politicians dare make a full-throated case for doing so. Supporters either try to abet the “rebels” without talking about it (as Obama did before the 2012 election), or rationalize that they are abetting “the moderates” . . . and hope you’re too uninformed to know who the “moderates” are (as Obama has done since the 2012 election).

For pro-interventionists, then, Assad’s use of chemical weapons has been manna from heaven. It has enabled them to rivet the nation’s attention to Assad’s atrocious war-fighting methods, to the exclusion of such unsavory considerations as the guarantee that attacking Assad promotes al-Qaeda and the Brotherhood — to say nothing of the jihadists’ even more alarming pursuit of chemical-weapons capability.

Personally, I believe al-Qaeda is worse, by far, than the use of chemical weapons. And someone somewhere must agree with me since Congress, by something close to 535–0, voted to authorize the use of military force against al-Qaeda. No one, by the way, needed to twist arms or promise the American people we wouldn’t put “boots on the ground” to get that authorization. It was a slam-dunk because it was so patently in the national interest — even though it has meant a dozen years of war, with ground troops, missiles, drone strikes, indefinite detentions, thousands of casualties, the whole run of gore that war entails.

So by all means, let’s assume Assad has used chemical weapons on a small scale against other Syrians during a bloody civil war that, though undeniably awful, poses no threat to American national security.

By contrast, Assad’s “rebel” opposition, spearheaded by the anti-American Muslim Brotherhood, systematically uses al-Qaeda in its military operations — not one or two times, but every single day, and in virtually every attack that causes real damage to the regime.

Why is Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons worse than the rebels’ use of al-Qaeda?

— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute. He is the author, most recently, of Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy.