April 4 2014

Author: Antoun Issa
Posted April 4, 2014

Fear of armed Islamist groups in Syria has been a major sticking point
between the United States and its regional allies in determining the
quality of arms supplied to Syrian rebels. It was again high on the
agenda on March 28 when US President Barack Obama touched down in
Riyadh for a brief visit.

According to the Washington Post, Obama was considering backing down
from his stern opposition to arming rebels with more advanced weaponry,
including anti-aircraft missiles, or MANPADs. The Saudis have long
pressed Western powers to arm rebel factions fighting to topple
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with sophisticated weapons, hoping
it would turn the tide in the opposition's favor in the three-year,
brutal conflict.

To bolster its argument that it is taking concrete steps to limit the
actions of jihadist groups fighting in Syria, Saudi Arabia passed
unprecedented anti-terror laws that specifically targeted Saudi
nationals fighting abroad, as well as listing Jabhat al-Nusra, the
Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the Muslim Brotherhood
as terrorist organizations.

Proponents for further militarization of the Syrian war insist that
"moderate" rebel fighters can be trusted with such sophisticated
weaponry, and can be used as a counterweight to rising jihadist groups
as well as to confront a national army receiving strong support from
Iran, Russia, Iraq and Lebanon's Hezbollah.

US officials continue to remain skeptical that such trustworthy,
"moderate" rebels exist, or that arms provided to vetted, moderate
rebels would not end up in the hands of the extremists. The
distinction between "moderate" and "extremist" rebels in Syria has
been presented in word only, without any substance to corroborate such
a distinction. The Washington Post report, relying on "knowledgeable
officials," states that Riyadh has agreed to exclude any fighters who
have worked with three jihadist groups: Ahrar al-Sham, al-Qaeda's
official affiliate in Syria Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda splinter
group ISIS.

This mistakenly presumes that those fighting in other rebel factions
are considered reliable to be armed with sophisticated weapons, and
espouse moderate beliefs. A number of key Salafist and extremist
factions operate beyond the three listed groups, and are wrongly
touted as "moderate."

The Islamic Front, for instance, is a nationwide coalition bringing
together a number of Salafist groups that equally hold extremist
ideologies. Ahrar al-Sham is one of the founding members of the
Islamic Front, and is mainly active in Aleppo and the north. Jaish
al-Islam, another key member of the coalition, largely operates in
the Damascus countryside and is headed by Zahran Alloush. According
to Syria expert Joshua Landis, the "difference between his ideology
and that of al-Qaeda groups is not profound."

The Islamic Front rejects democracy, a civil state and secularism,
instead calling for a strict interpretation of Sharia and the
resurrection of the Islamic umma. Syrian opposition sources and
Western diplomats have told Al-Monitor that Islamic Front factions
in the north are largely financed and supported by Qatar and Turkey,
while Alloush's Jaish al-Islam in Damascus enjoys Saudi support.

Saudi also touted Bashar al-Zoubi, head of the Yarmouk Brigade
operating in the country's south, as a potential "moderate" local
partner that the West could trust. Zoubi was to head the new "Southern
Front" that would, in an ideal Saudi world, receive US weapons through
the Jordanian border. As reported in Al-Monitor, Zoubi, however, has
worked with Jabhat al-Nusra on several occasions. Does this exclude
Zoubi from receiving sophisticated weapons, as per Saudi Arabia's
proposed criteria cited by the Washington Post?

Jaish al-Mujahedeen, a small coalition of Islamist factions in Aleppo,
has also popped up with much fanfare after it participated in attacks
against the much-reviled ISIS. Do they fit the "moderate" criterion?

In March, Mujahedeen fighters forced prominent opposition civilian
activist, Marcell Shehrawo -- a Christian -- to wear an Islamic veil.

Although the group later apologized, its overt Islamist leanings do
not bode confidence in Jaish al-Mujahedeen as a reliable recipient
of sophisticated weaponry.

One of the rare less-Islamist fighting forces, the Syrian
Revolutionaries' Front, was also raised in some media outlets as
a potential reliable partner on the ground. The group is known to
be backed by Saudi Arabia, and its leader, Jamal Maarouf, has been
accused of being a warlord who has diverted resources for his own use.

Maarouf this week told The Independent that fighting al-Qaeda was
not his problem, and openly confessed to working and sharing military
supplies with its affiliate in Syria. A Qatar-leaning source in the
Syrian National Coalition told Al-Monitor privately that Saudi-backed
brigades, formerly part of the Free Syrian Army, were largely criminals
and bandits that locals despised.

More recently, the coordinated rebel attack on the Latakia countryside
and the capture of the historic Syrian Armenian village of Kassab was
celebrated by the Syrian National Coalition as a "military victory that
will have important results." Again, misguided support was given to
what was presented as noble, moderate revolutionaries in the Latakia
offensive. One of the main factions that steered the Latakia offensive
was Sham al-Islam, a radical jihadist outfit run by former Guantanamo
Bay detainee and veteran Moroccan jihadist Ibrahim Benchekroune. His
fighters are largely other North African jihadists, who, according to
reports, removed crosses at Armenian churches in the village, sparking
an outcry from Armenians across the world, including Kim Kardashian.

Shant Kerbabian, a Syrian Armenian originally from Kassab, but based
in Beirut, told Al-Monitor that locals fled out of fear for Jabhat

"The crosses were taken down. This was confirmed, I spoke to a
senior member of the community there," Kerbabian said, adding that no
massacres took place. Kerbabian, citing community leaders from Kassab,
said that Jabhat al-Nusra was looting houses in Kassab after locals
had left their belongings behind, transporting trucks into Turkey.

Kerbabian added this demonstrated Turkey's direct involvement in the
invasion of Kassab.

"Jabhat al-Nusra fighters were saying that they want to bring their
'brothers' [residing] in tents and refugee camps and put them in
Kassab," Kerbabian said.

Media narratives are forever looking for a "good guy" to fight the
"bad guy," and are too quick to assign the "moderate" label to armed
groups. But Syria is no Hollywood script, and the search for a noble
rebel fighting force to combat Assad's forces has so far yielded
few results. Having seemingly learnt from the Afghan experience,
the Obama administration has been right to take a cautious approach
to arming rebels that might one day turn their weapons on them.

Britain's Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs,
Hugh Robertson, underscored the West's primary concern in an interview
with Al-Monitor last week.

"There is a clear [jihadist] threat to the United Kingdom. There are
jihadists there, around 400 [Britons] that are being radicalized
in Syria. This increases the importance of a political settlement
in Syria."

The risks are too high to send weapons into a war where moderates
are too few.

The views presented here in this article are solely those of the
author and do not represent the editorial position of Al-Monitor.