In Syria, Western Illusions Lead to Ill-Advised Action

Assad’s army has suffered setbacks in recent weeks. Rebels now control much of Deraa province in the south. Further north, the rebels captured Raqaa, a provincial city of 250,000 inhabitants. This success was surely aided by the new, superior weaponry. However, neither of these gains affect the main contours of the war. Still under Assad control: the key areas of Damascus and its environs; the mainly Alawi western coastal area; the highway between them; the cities of Homs and Hama and about half of the city of Aleppo; and other urban areas dotted around the country.

Regarding the issue of Islamist dominance of the rebellion: controlling the distribution of arms among the myriad networks of which the Syrian rebellion consists is probably impossible. Syria-watchers have already unearthed photographic and video evidence showing weapons of the type introduced into Syria by the Croatia deal in the hands of jihadi and Salafi-Islamist fighters in various parts of the country. These include some of the most extreme elements, such as Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafi force prominent in the Aleppo area.

The presence of RPG-22s and M-60 recoilless guns has also been recorded in Idleb province and in the Homs area, both centers of jihadi and Islamist activity in the west and northwest of Syria.

The simple fact of the matter is that trying to differentiate between the supposedly secular “Free Syrian Army” and the other groups is futile. The Free Syrian Army is at best a very loose conglomeration of disparate elements. These consist almost exclusively of Sunni Islamist fighters of various hues, at least where fighting -- as opposed to looting -- is to be done.

Drawing a firm line between this loose collection of rebel brigades and other rebel gatherings such as the Syrian Liberation Front and the Syrian Islamic Front will not work. These groups are not at war with each other. They cooperate in the fighting against Assad. And it is already clear that weapons will find their way into the hands of those willing to use them in Syria regardless of U.S. and allied wishes.

There is also little reason to believe that the men doing the fighting on the ground will see themselves beholden to something calling itself the “provisional government.” The rebels have already begun to put in place a variety of their own Islamic organs of governance in the areas the regime has left. And of course, the head of the so-called “provisional government” is himself a man with connections to Islamist organizations.

In short, the level of increased involvement which the U.S. and its allies appear to prefer is highly unlikely to produce either the defeat of Assad or the emergence of a coherent, Western-aligned insurgency.

It represents the reinforcing of the illusions that currently govern Western policy on the Middle East.