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The Syrian Insurgency

Rebels of the Free Syrian Army in Idlib, northern Syria. (Photo:

Rebels of the Free Syrian Army in Idlib, northern Syria. (Photo:

As many people are now aware, the Syrian insurgency is a diverse and fractionated operation. Including all the minor, local militias, there are an estimated 1,200 rebel organizations playing some role in it. Western observers tend to divide them into pro-Western and Islamist, but this is a simplification. The independent-minded groups have many shades of ideology as well as internal mixes of ideology. Categories overlap, and coalitions form and shift among them. This complicates the U.S. task of arming anti-Assad rebels. A major U.S. concern is to vet groups so as not to arm those who might eventually turn against us, as happened in Afghanistan after the 1980s.*

To accomplish this goal, the United States needed some sort of organization to accept assistance. So it helped organize the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) to function as a political umbrella group that was (1) capable of representing and, hopefully, governing the rebellion and (2) acceptable to American politicians. An inherent problem is that it really should be acceptable to Syrians, too. Many rebels on the ground in Syria view the SNC as dominated by privileged exiles with few links to contemporary Syria, little stake in the rebellion, and too much concern for the internal, factional politics of the coalition. Many also view it as a tool of foreign powers. It appears that the United States is resented for its reluctance to supply arms freely and for its insistence on determining who can and cannot receive those arms. Resentments have been expressed toward Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well. These Arab states have provided arms to the rebels but have also injected themselves into the SNC’s factional infighting.

On the ground, the United States encouraged the organization of the Supreme Military Council to merge acceptable non-Islamist rebel groups into the Free Syrian Army. The Supreme Military Council is led by Salim Idriss, an English-speaking brigadier general who defected from the Syrian army to join the rebellion in July 2012.

The extent to which the United States has actually armed rebels remains something of a mystery. Assistance, of course, required the vetting of many rebel groups and the establishment of a logistical network up to the Syrian border. These things required time. Aid began with nonlethal materials, including food, medicine, and communications and transportation equipment. This may have been partially due to the concern about accidentally arming hostile groups, but it also provided an opportunity to test rebel groups and prove that they had the organizational capacity to establish their own logistical networks within Syria and to get supplies to the intended recipients without having them land in Islamist field camps or black markets. As of now, U.S. sources say that arms have begun to flow to rebels, but rebel leaders have denied it. The discrepancy could be due to the arms flowing through convoluted routes that disguise their real origin. On the other hand, it could simply be that the CIA—favoring secrecy, as it does—told the rebels not to admit to anything and they complied.

For their part, the Islamist rebels are also more diverse and fractionated than many people realize. Until recently, attention focused primarily on Jabhat al-Nusrah (“Victory Front”), which emerged in early 2012. U.S. intelligence determined that Jabhat al-Nusrah was essentially a cover name for the al-Qa’ida affiliate in neighboring Iraq. That group once went by the name of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, but in 2006—at a time when its leaders thought the Americans were about to leave—it upgraded itself and became the Islamic State of Iraq. That group was quiescent for several years after the U.S. surge of 2007 but reemerged in Iraq after the U.S. departure at the end of 2011. Iraqi jihadis, including some who recently escaped from Iraqi prisons, have come to join the battle in Syria under the aegis of Jabhat al-Nusrah. Although rooted in Iraq, the group succeeded in recruiting Syrians to fight against the Assad regime. In the process it appears to have become something more than a mere extension of the Iraqi organization. In addition, it developed a reputation as one of the most militarily effective rebel forces in Syria.

In April 2013, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had replace Osama bin Laden as al-Qa’ida’s top leader, declared that it was time for the Iraqi and Syrian insurgencies to work together. Within days, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq announced that his organization had merged with Jabhat al-Nusrah to form the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).† This did not work out so well. The Islamist movement in Syria split. Jabhat al-Nusrah, or at least part of it, continued a separate existence, and the two appear to have become rivals. (ISIS refers to Jabhat al-Nusrah as the “defectors.”) According to reports, the new organization, ISIS, developed a reputation for being too little concerned with fighting Assad and too much with seizing already liberated territories and imposing its own interpretation of Islamic orthodoxy on the local population, including the execution of people deemed secular.

The situation became even more complicated on Sept. 24, 2013. On that day, several brigades affiliated with the Free Syrian Army—the “pro-Western” rebels—issued a joint statement, together with Jabhat al-Nusrah, denouncing the Syrian National Council and declaring sharī’ah to be the only legitimate basis for legislation. This must have been distressing for U.S. officials. It is certainly not a victory either for the United States or for the SNC, yet its full meaning is still not entirely clear. Disdain for the SNC and devotion to sharī’ah are not unusual and are not necessarily considered radical in Syrian rebel circles. The list of signatories may or may not represent a new and durable alliance. Most notable is that ISIS was not a signatory. It is possible—perhaps not likely, but possible—that ISIS is the real target; the references to exile leaders and Islamic law could be an effort to shore up the groups’ right flank before taking on fellow Muslim rebels.

The existence of deep divisions within the rebel movement and the potential for serious fighting among rebel units do not bode well for the struggle against Assad. Indeed, some among the Free Syrian Army believe that the Assad regime secretly created ISIS precisely to undermine the rebellion. (That seems unlikely.) On the other hand, if fighting within the insurgency is coming, then pretending won’t make it go away. If the United States is really determined to arm a portion of the insurgency, then a fight that differentiates the parties might even add some clarity. Many commentators in this country will assert that this situation never would have come about if the Obama administration had armed the Free Syrian Army earlier. More likely is that the only major difference would have been our greater role in the middle of it. Perhaps the greatest lesson is that the Syrian insurgency is neither an American invention nor an American tool. The Obama administration may decide to work with it, but it will exist and operate on its own terms, not necessarily in the ways that we would prefer.

*Weapons going to Afghanistan had to pass through Pakistan, and as a condition for allowing this, Pakistan insisted on picking the groups to be armed. Pakistan preferred Afghan rebel groups that made no claim to Pakistani territory, which often meant the Islamists.

†The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria seems to be the most commonly used English translation for the name of this organization. The Arabic title, however, uses the word al-Shām rather than Syria. Al-Shām is an older geographic designation that includes not only modern-day Syria, but also Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. It is sometimes translated as Greater Syria or the Levant.



Scott Monje
Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.

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