For elected representatives and the public to have the necessary discussion regarding action in Syria, it is crucial that a clear picture of the realities on the ground in Syria be presented.
Regarding the Assad regime and its apologists, nothing needs to be cleared up. This is a regime characterized by murderous brutality since it first emerged in the 1960s. It has been perhaps the single most destabilizing factor in the Levant throughout the years of its existence. An apparent use of nerve gas against its own civilians fits entirely with the more general pattern of its behavior.
But as the U.S. grapples with the issue of what, if anything, is to be done, it is clear that a rival campaign of deception is underway: an attempt to present the Syrian armed rebels as consisting in the main of “moderate” and pro-democratic forces. If only that were so: in reality, the spectrum of orientation among the observable Syrian rebel units spans from a Muslim Brotherhood-type outlook to open identification with al-Qaeda.
This means the most “moderate” rebel units share the ideas of former President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt. And Hamas.
Let’s take a closer look. According to the most authoritative studies on the subject, there are three main blocs among the Syrian rebels.
The most radical element is the al-Qaeda-type groups: Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). The latter is the direct descendant of the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi of Iraq’s organization. (For those who don’t remember, this individual was known as a brutal sectarian murderer of Iraqi Shia before he was killed by U.S. forces.) Much evidence has emerged showing that his current followers are faithful adherents to his methods. Also, both of these groups are openly and directly loyal to the core al-Qaeda group led by Ayman al-Zawahiri.
A second, larger bloc consists of openly anti-democratic Salafi Islamist fighters, gathered together as the Syrian Islamic Front bloc. The main element of this grouping is the powerful Ahrar al-Sham militia.
These groups have been prominent in the fighting in northern Syria; they are responsible for capturing the single provincial capital to fall to the rebels: Raqqa. Today, Raqqa has exchanged the repression of the Assads for the repression of the Islamists.
Then we have the third bloc, the largest collection of brigades. These are the ones who we are encouraged to see as “moderate” and “democratic.”
The main element of this third bloc is called the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front. Its 20 constituent units are loyal to the Western-supported Supreme Military Council (SMC), or General Staff of the Military and Revolutionary Forces. They include some of the most powerful rebel brigades, including Liwa al-Islam in the Damascus area, the Tawhid Brigade of Aleppo, and the Farouq Brigades.
The SMC is headed by former Syrian Army Major General Salim Idris. It is today responsible for the distributing of Western and Gulf assistance to the rebels, and on this basis has secured the loyalty of most of the SILF rebel units. (A number of smaller factions, including Afhad al-Rasul and Asifat al-Shamal, also align with the SMC, though not the SILF.)
All of the groups mentioned here pledge allegiance to some form of Sunni Islamism.
I have made several trips to rebel-controlled northern Syria over the last year. In September 2012, I interviewed one of the senior commanders of the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo, and I spent several days traveling with the brigade’s fighters at the height of the fighting there. I also interviewed members of the emergent Sharia councils in the rebel-controlled areas.