As they have from the start, the Free Syrian Army was rolling out the welcome mat for al-Qaeda. “They are welcome to help us fight the regime,” explained Colonel Abdel Rahman Suweis, a member of the FSA’s Supreme Military Council.
This is not ancient history. The report from Al Jazeera (which Bill Roggio excerpts at the invaluable Long War Journal) has the FSA commander making these remarks less than two weeks ago. Just a couple of days later came another nugget from the al-Qaeda side of the “rebel” equation: A top leader of one of the terror network’s two major Syrian affiliates, which calls itself the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” told Al Jazeera that the FSA is actually providing al-Qaeda with weapons. “We are buying weapons from the FSA,” he asserted. “We bought 200 anti-aircraft missiles and Koncourse anti-tank weapons. We have good relations with our brothers in the FSA. For us, the infidels are those who cooperate with the West to fight Islam.”
It is to Islamic-supremacist megaphones like Al Jazeera that we must turn for a reality check on the Syrian civil war. When it comes to the anti-Assad forces — denominated the “rebels” in hopes that no one will notice they self-define as “mujahideen” (i.e., jihad warriors) — American media outlets are as flush with Spring Fever as they have ever been. A dozen years of American effort — prohibitively expensive in blood and treasure — have left us with Iraq’s return to its default condition of internecine Sunni-Shiite butchery; Afghanistan’s implacable determination to remain the same medieval Islamic dystopia it has always been; a massacre of Americans by the jihadists we empowered in Benghazi; and Egypt’s ongoing implosion. Yet even in the conservative press, the very un-conservative ambitions of the bipartisan Beltway establishment’s Islamic-democracy project continue to hold sway.
Typical of this kind of thinking is “Why Rand Paul Is Wrong about Syria,” by the Foreign Policy Initiative’s Robert Zarate and Evan Moore. Published here at NRO on Thursday, it is an attack on the Kentucky Republican senator’s objections to U.S. intervention in Syria. Messrs. Zarate and Moore prefer a Libya-style alliance with the “rebels,” the Obama-administration gambit ardently endorsed by Senator John McCain, the erratic compass on which the GOP establishment relies for foreign-policy guidance.
In making their case, the authors — while accusing Senator Paul of promoting “false claims” and distortions — present the now familiar fairy-tale depiction of the Syrian conflict. They would have you believe that, under the auspices of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), there are throngs of “moderate Syrian rebels” who are just as opposed to al-Qaeda as they are to Assad. It is a laughable contention. There are no “moderates” in Syria. There are bad factions and worse factions — virtually all of them virulently anti-American.
The FSA is not an army. It is a gaggle of militias. For appearances’ sake, it is currently “commanded” by General Salim Idriss, a secularist who is portrayed by Zarate and Moore as if he were a prototype rebel. But the power behind the anti-Assad rebellion is the Muslim Brotherhood.
Idriss is part of a smattering of secularists highlighted to give the mujahideen a patina of moderation. The Brothers are no fools: They have been trying to take the Baathist Assad regime out for decades, and they know they don’t have a chance without Western — and particularly, American — support. So Idriss is presented as if he were in charge and as if what the authors describe as his “commitment to a tolerant and inclusive vision of Syria” were broadly shared across Assad’s opposition. But the “commander” has no capacity to exert control over the militias, which are shot through with Islamic supremacists.
There are not enough secularists in the opposition to cause Assad to lose a night’s sleep, much less threaten his grip on power. To oust him, the opposition needs legions of Islamic supremacists — armed by the United States. Zarate and Moore try to navigate around this inconvenience by omitting any mention of the Muslim Brotherhood and suggesting that there are only two camps: “moderates” and al-Qaeda. This distortion may be marginally less risible than the Obama administration’s laugh-out-loud tactic of conceding the Brothers’ significance but misrepresenting them as “largely secular.” Still, it is unavailing all the same.
Contrary to the authors’ claim, foreign fighters are not flocking to Syria because they are affiliated with al-Qaeda. They are reacting to a fatwa issued in May by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the world’s most influential Sunni sharia authority and the Muslim Brotherhood’s chief jurist. Qaradawi declared that the jihad in Syria against Assad and his Shiite backers — primarily, Iran-backed Hezbollah — is a duty for every able-bodied Muslim who is trained to fight.
Qaradawi, who also serves as the backbone of international support for Hamas — the terrorist organization that is the Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch — is notoriously anti-American and anti-Israeli. His prior fatwas, in addition to fomenting murderous rioting over such trivial slights as the publication of unflattering cartoon images of the prophet Mohammed, have called for the killing of American military and support personnel in Iraq, as well as suicide bombings against Israel. Crucially for current purposes, Qaradawi has been the powerhouse behind the Brotherhood’s Syrian enterprise — drumming up international political and financial support for the “rebels.” It is no coincidence that shortly after Qaradawi’s fatwa, Egypt’s Islamic-supremacist government — then led by the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi — cut off diplomatic ties with Assad, called for a no-fly zone over Syria, and declaimed that “Hezbollah must leave Syria.”
Qaradawi, it is worth emphasizing, is not al-Qaeda. Like all Islamic supremacists, he and the Brotherhood share al-Qaeda’s dream of installing sharia in every Islamic country and, ultimately, establishing a global caliphate. As a result, they work with al-Qaeda on common goals, such as vanquishing Assad. But knowing he has the ear of the Obama administration — which, shockingly, just rolled out the White House red carpet for his deputy, Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah (who also endorsed terror attacks on Americans in Iraq) — Qaradawi is now laboring to relegate al-Qaeda to the rebel sidelines, playing into the Washington fiction that al-Qaeda is America’s only enemy.
There are two major al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria: the aforementioned Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and the group cited by Senator Paul, Jabhat al Nusra. The latter, which employs all the savage tactics for which al-Qaeda is infamous, is among the most able of the anti-Assad militias. Consistent with the Obama/McCain approach of blinking at reality, the administration formally declared Nusra a terrorist organization back in December, as if that would deter the FSA militias — many of which publicly scoffed at the maneuver. Despite what Zarate and Moore assert, Nusra continues to work closely with the FSA.
Among those lavishing praise on Nusra for doing “very well in its jihad against the tyrant regime of Damascus” is Qaradawi. Through his International Union of Muslim Scholars, he has urged Nusra to reconsider its pledge of fealty to al-Qaeda, reasoning that “this pledge causes internal and external dangers, and its impact on the revolution is dangerous because it breaks the ranks of the mujahideen.” Translation: “Hey Nusra, go right ahead with your savage methods, but could you pipe down about the al-Qaeda connection? That way, the morons in Washington will pretend you’re a ‘moderate’ and keep giving us the money and weapons we need.”
The Brothers have decided they need Nusra, so Nusra will remain a key force regardless of Obama’s paper terrorist designations and Idriss’s dreamy vision. Nusra’s vision, like the Brotherhood’s, is that Syria will become an anti-Western sharia state in the Sunni mold.
As for ISIL, it is true enough that FSA leaders are squabbling with that al-Qaeda affiliate. ISIL has killed a couple of FSA commanders and is imposing its sharia dictates on territories the “rebels” have captured. But more than anything else, the disputes illustrate the impotence of the FSA. Idriss & Co. can huff and puff, but they cannot enforce ultimatums against al-Qaeda, and they cannot stop their component militias from fighting side-by-side with al-Qaeda.
The stubborn fact of the matter is that Islamic supremacism pervades Assad’s opposition. Al-Qaeda is only a small slice of the problem. There are legions of Islamic supremacists, both indigenous and foreign, in Syria. Even if al-Qaeda were to vacate the scene, arming the “rebels” means arming what Qaradawi more accurately calls the “mujahideen.”
Pace Messrs. Zarate and Moore, Senator Paul’s assertion that “there is no clear U.S. national interest in Syria” was not a “false claim.” It was an accurate assessment of the totality of the situation. The authors’ insistence that we have an interest in keeping rogue regimes from using weapons of mass destruction is tunnel vision. There are WMD in Syria. Assad’s use of them is reprehensible (albeit in character), and the specter of his transferring them to Hezbollah is alarming (though no more alarming than the fact that Assad has them in the first place, as does Iran — the patron of Assad and puppeteer of Hezbollah). But the possibility of WMD falling into the hands of the Brotherhood and its jihadist allies — who, by the way, have been colluding with Iran for two decades and have energetically sought WMD — is no more comforting. Paul did not say there were no American national interests implicated; he said there was no clear national interest. Obviously, he meant it is by no means clear that ousting Assad over his apparent use of chemical weapons would be an improvement from an American security perspective. Sadly, that is true.
Paul was clearly also right that arming the FSA means arming al-Qaeda affiliates. Contrary to Zarate and Moore’s contentions, the FSA’s loosely tied, largely autonomous militias cannot be controlled by central commanders. Not only do the militias, many of which share al-Qaeda’s core convictions and goals, frequently collaborate with al-Qaeda affiliates; indications are that they already provide arms to their al-Qaeda allies — in addition to receiving support from al-Qaeda’s backers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Finally, Paul is quite right that there is “no clear moral choice” for us in Syria. To claim, as Zarate and Moore do, that there is a patent difference between Assad’s barbarism, on the one hand, and “General Idriss and other moderate rebels,” on the other, is a gross distortion. Idriss and the moderates are window dressing. The only forces who stand a chance of ejecting Assad are Sunni Islamic supremacists — the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, and jihadists the world over who answer the summons of the rabidly anti-American Qaradawi.
Assad turned his border into a sluicegate from which jihadists flooded into Iraq to kill Americans. Qaradawi is the sharia eminence who exhorted them to do the flooding and the killing. To see a clear moral choice between those two — indeed, to fail to see that that is the choice — is to imagine a Syria that does not exist.