As more news comes out about Syrian rebels battling each other, President Obama’s deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin is looking better and better. Some of the rebels may be worse than the regime of Bashar al-Assad and any situation in which they might acquire chemical weapons could be disastrous.
Over the weekend, the Associated Press reported that rebel forces affiliated with al-Qaida were battling more moderate groups along the Syrian border with Iraq. That part of the country is seen as a haven for the more extreme elements. The AP says that tensions between the various groups fighting against Assad’s rule have been building for months and erupted into open conflict in July.
When American officials talk about arming or aiding the rebels, they are typically referring to the relatively moderate Free Syrian Army. But as an FSA commander, Mahmoud al-Aboud told The Daily Beast, “Local mainstream rebel factions comprised of Syrian fighters who are not looking for a caliphate are clashing with al-Qaida-linked groups who want to seize control of these areas.”
Therein lies the problem for any U.S. action: With whatever we do, how do we know that we are not really helping the very people who want most to harm us?
It is right to condemn Assad for using chemical weapons. They are gruesome, cruel and most effective when used against defenseless civilians.
Assad, however, has no monopoly on evil. And if we weaken his control over the chemical weapons he possesses we may also increase the likelihood of their falling into the hands of al-Qaida – the group that, unlike Assad, really did directly attack the United States.
How all this unfolds may be impossible to predict.
Aboud said his group had not wanted to fight al-Qaida, at least not yet. “Originally the supreme military councils did not want to fight any other rebel forces until the regime fell,” he said. “We were forced to do this.”
Reuters explained what he meant by that. It reported Sunday that al-Qaida head Ayman al-Zawahiri sent a message Sept. 12 instructing al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the two key Syrian groups affiliated with al-Qaida, not to cooperate with the Free Syrian Army or other moderate groups.
For their part, while the FSA and other moderates once valued al-Qaida assistance with expertise and resources, they now see any association as a threat. Not only has al-Qaida proved a faithless ally, but any ties to it endanger the possibility of aid from the West.
Will this hostility among rebel forces bolster Assad? None of the rebel groups have quit fighting the regime, and as the AP reports, they sometimes still work together in that effort. Conflict among the rebel groups may weaken one or more of them, but it could also further undermine Assad by contributing to the general destruction of the country. Who knows?
No matter what the United States does, the likelihood of unintended consequences is high. With that, perhaps the best policy is to try to limit the threat any surprises might pose. And that may well mean the president’s current course is correct.
Neither Assad nor any of his foes have the ability to directly attack the United States. But with chemical weapons any of them could threaten American interests, Israel or other U.S. allies – not militarily, but as terrorism. A diplomatic focus on securing and if possible destroying those chemical weapons makes sense. And if that takes time and Russian help, so what?
Because then Obama can do what Americans clearly want and let these guys sort it out for themselves.