Assad is looking stronger than ever

Paul Wood writes: Everyone in rebel-held areas will tell you that the Islamists, of whichever stripe, are making gains because of the ‘secular’ FSA’s corruption and opportunism. That and the fact that most of the money and guns are going to the Islamists, sent by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. ‘Ali’ had been a flight attendant with Emirates before the war, living in Dubai and going to bars to pick up girls. Now he was in a Nusra Front brigade, he told me, but only because he thought they were really taking the battle to the regime. The emir of his group had banned smoking in line with Islamist doctrine. Ali would sneak outside for a crafty cigarette. He wasn’t an Islamist, he said, he just wanted Assad gone.

The bits of the FSA that continue to oppose Nusra and the Islamic State blame the West for their loss of power. ‘The Syrian people will welcome any support if the West continues to abandon us,’ the FSA’s commander for southern Syria, Abu Fadi, told me in Jordan. Abu Fadi said that, contrary to reports in the US newspapers, he had received almost no American help. None of his men had been trained in the camps that supposedly exist in Jordan. No weapons had been handed over. ‘We have had some new boots and jackets,’ he said with a snort. ‘That’s all.’

Isis and their satellites are still far from a majority but they have influence beyond their numbers. Public beheadings are now common in northern Syria. The BBC obtained pictures of one, the executioner dressed in black waving a severed head before a jubilant crowd.

Amid what the guidebooks call the ‘stylish and opulent’ surroundings of the Albergo hotel in Beirut, a western diplomat was briefing journalists. The room was all Persian rugs and wing-backed chairs. Waiters hovered. The official was his government’s main conduit to the Syrian rebels. I asked him what percentage of the rebels western countries could support: what percentage were not jihadis, not committing human rights abuses, looting or kidnapping — and were militarily effective?

There was a silence. Finally, he said: ‘Thirty per cent.’ It was a devastating admission. Then he paused and said he had been considering only the first three criteria. Adding in military effectiveness, you would have to say the West could support only 10 per cent.

Western diplomats are now scrambling to ensure that 10 per cent has at least the appearance of running the show. [Continue reading…]

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