One of the foremost concerns expressed by members of Congress considering President Barack Obama’s request for authorization of a military strike in Syria is that U.S. action will end up empowering actors who are even worse than Bashar al-Assad: in particular, al-Qaida affiliates who have been prominent in fighting the regime. The worries are legitimate. But if they prompt legislators to oppose American military action, the threat to both Syria and U.S. national interests from the jihadists will grow worse.
However, the strength of the al-Qaida forces has been exaggerated. Foremost among the myth-mongers is Russian President Vladimir Putin, a staunch Assad supporter who on Wednesday claimed that “al-Qaida units are the main military echelon” of the Syrian rebels and that Secretary of State John F. Kerry lied to Congress when he asserted otherwise.
In fact, if anyone is willfully distorting the truth it is Putin. Both U.S. and independent intelligence estimates show that the 11 jihadist groups identified in Syria make up a small minority of the anti-government forces.
Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who has travelled extensively inside Syria, reports that al-Qaida and mainstream rebel forces are largely separated from each other and control different pieces of territory. She says that the jihadists are less interested in defeating Assad than in establishing a safe haven.
That the extremists are succeeding in holding some ground has more to do with Syria’s state of war than its receptivity to Islamic fundamentalism. For the last century Syria has been a predominantly secular society, with numerous religious and ethnic minorities. Many who have joined the al-Qaida groups did so not because of their ideology, but because they were better funded and supplied.
The way to counter the threat posed by the jihadists is not to leave the Assad regime in power, but to empower the moderate and secular majority. The U.S. failure to support moderate forces one and two years ago helped to pave the way for al-Qaida in Syria.
The Washington Post (Sept. 8)