Charles Lister writes: Yesterday David Cameron told Parliament that there are ‘about 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups’ who could help fight Islamic State.
The Prime Minister’s number was the result of an internal assessment made by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), backed up by serving British diplomats overseas whose jobs focus on the Syrian opposition. Such a large number struck many as political exaggeration. The chairman of the Defence Committee, Julian Lewis, said he was ‘extremely surprised’. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn may issue a formal demand for clarification. So do these fighters exist and who are they?
Of course, the debate primarily centres around the issue of what it means to be a ‘moderate armed opposition group’ in Syria. Notwithstanding the storm surrounding this morning’s statement, this question has become particularly pertinent in recent days, as international diplomats discuss who should – and should not – be involved in a future Syrian peace process.
As diplomatic efforts for Syria gain pace and as Saudi Arabia prepares to host a major conference bringing together 60-80 representatives of a broad spectrum opposition, the definition of “moderate” has been shifting. The most effective definition now must be based upon a combined assessment of (a) what groups are acknowledged as being opposed to ISIL and (b) what groups our governments want, or need to be involved in a political process.
Having studied Syria’s armed opposition since the first months of the country’s uprising in mid-2011, I can say with confidence that the Prime Minister and the JIC are about right. [Continue reading…]