Syria’s pragmatic revolutionaries

“This is as far as possible from a popular revolution in Syria. Who can deny this is a US-run proxy war?” Ali Abunimah tweeted a week ago.

Yes, I can picture John McCain, George Soros, and Gene Sharp, huddled in the basement of the White House, planning attacks against Syrian government forces and handling the logistics of weapon transfers to America’s mercenary fighters in the Al Nasra Front. It is a front after all, and we all know who lurks behind these kinds of fronts: the CIA.

How can we be sure this is not a popular revolution? “Because popular revolutions aren’t trained by the CIA in Jordan.”

Indeed. An armed uprising instigated by Syria and Iran’s enemies in Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, and the United States, would be nothing more than a proxy war if this was where the opposition to Assad had actually first coalesced. But it didn’t — and Abunimah knows as much; he’s just decided that with the war having become so ugly and reasons for hope so few, it’s easier to go back to singing straight from the old anti-imperialist songbook.

Meanwhile, the BBC provides more fodder to those who decry this “proxy war“:

Over the past few months the Americans – without being obliged to announce any policy changes involving military commitments – have apparently tipped the wink to their regional allies, mainly Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to step up the quantity and quality of arms supplies to the rebels.

At the same time, the Americans are reported to be involved in helping train supposedly moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) elements in Jordan and sending them across the border into southern Syria, where the rebels, enjoying better anti-air and anti-armour weapons than before, have begun to make gains that are being compared to their advances in the far north.

With western support being made contingent on loyalty to the FSA and the opposition National Coalition, this has clearly put pressure on the Nusra Front and other jihadi groups.

Many of their followers are believed to have joined up opportunistically because the front had more resources and experience than the other groups.

With that trend now apparently starting to reverse and more resources being routed through the “moderate” groups, al-Qaeda may have judged it timely to remind the jihadists where their loyalties and objectives lie, lest they be lured away.

Knowing that the west is nervous about providing the Free Syrian Army and other “mainstream” rebel groups with serious, balance-tilting weaponry for fear that it may fall into the hands of the radicals, al-Qaeda may have decided deliberately to contaminate the entire opposition by association, and deter western arms to the moderates, in order to preserve the jihadis’ ascendancy on the ground.

The nascent struggle between radicals and others in the opposition is bound to become more acute as regime change moves closer to reality, and if unresolved, will intensify further after it happens, possibly for a long time.

The problem with the concept of a proxy war is that it implies that most of the men with guns and heavier weapons fighting Assad forces are serving as agents of foreign powers — that they are as the Syrian government insists, mercenaries and terrorists.

The reality is that the outside powers, much as they would like to control what happens in Syria, are acutely aware that supplying weapons and determining how they get used are two very different things. Moreover, the high degree of pragmatism among Syria’s fighters means that selective support — arming so-called “moderates” — will not simply have the desired effect of strengthening the “good guys” and weakening the “bad guys.” Instead, it is fueling a struggle within the opposition.

Some conspiracy theorists may argue that this is a divide-and-rule strategy designed to prolong Assad’s rule. I am more inclined to believe that it reflects the simplistic political calculations of politicians in the U.S. and elsewhere whose primary concern is that they neither look impotent nor be accused of supporting terrorism.

As for the ideological purists who will only support a revolution untainted by outside support, the privilege of being able to define a just cause in this way only seems to belong to those who have the luxury of being outside the conflict.

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