U.S. President Obama's decision to establish an international coalition to combat terrorist organizations, particularly the Islamic State (ISIS), met with mixed responses within the Syrian opposition; these responses ranged from qualified appreciation for the decision to strong objection to it. The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NC), led by Hadi Al-Bahra, welcomed the decision, and even called for hastening its implementation, in light of the dire humanitarian situation in ISIS-controlled areas. However, the NC stressed that the international coalition must also attack the forces of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, stating that he is the root cause of the terrorism. In contrast, another NC member, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which, although it is part of this coalition, strongly opposed Western military action against ISIS in Syria, fearing that this international coalition's real agenda was to fight Sunni Islam.
There is similar disagreement among the armed elements of the Syrian opposition. Thus, some fighting groups were pleased with the decision; some criticized the extent of the aid given to the armed opposition; and some opposed the decision, even to the point of threatening to react violently.
These disparate responses among the Syrian opposition reflect a lack of faith in a U.S.-led international coalition, stemming from the disappointment with the American administration's handling of the war in Syria, which has been raging for nearly four years. One main claim by the opposition is that the West in general, and the American administration in particular, did not act decisively to stop war crimes committed by the Assad regime during the war, including the use of chemical weapons – crimes that they claim are substantially worse than those committed by ISIS.
The differences in the various Syrian opposition elements' vis-à-vis the international coalition stem mainly from the ideological differences among them. The MB, as a political Islam organization, fears that it will be equated with ISIS, and that the fight against ISIS will subsequently turn into a struggle against it and against Sunni Islam in general. Hence, although the MB condemns ISIS's actions, its statements emphasize its opposition to the international coalition. This position mirrors that of the MB in Egypt, which likewise opposes the international coalition and has similarly questioned the motives of the fight against terrorism. A September 16, 2014 statement by the MB in Egypt noted that in recent years the West has raised the banner of 'war on terror' as an pretext for attacking, carving up, and occupying the Islamic world, and that Arab Muslims are being recruited to fight other Arab Muslims. Sheikh Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi, head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars and a spiritual leader of the MB, has also expressed his opposition to the U.S.-led international coalition, saying that it serves America's interests.
Conversely, the view of the NC, in its current makeup, is that a blow to ISIS, which it is fighting, will ultimately serve NC interests as long as it is accompanied by the arming of NC forces and by attacks on the regime forces.
Despite the difference in positions, the various streams within the Syrian opposition share certain views:
1. The struggle against terrorist organizations should start with the root cause of their existence and of their spread throughout Syria – that is, the Assad regime and the militias that support it.
2. Fear that international focus on terrorist organizations constitutes recognition of the Assad regime's claim that it itself is combating terrorism, thus delegitimizing the revolution.
3. Calling to enable moderate forces on the ground to combat both the Assad regime and ISIS simultaneously, by providing them with quality weapons and also by coordinating with them.
4. Criticism on various levels of the U.S. administration's handling of the Syrian crisis.
This paper will review the responses of various elements within the Syrian opposition to President Obama's decision to launch a military action against terrorist organizations, especially ISIS.
NC: International Coalition Should Also Attack Syrian Regime
The decision to launch an international campaign against terrorist organizations placed the NC and its president, Hadi Al-Bahra, in a precarious position: On the one hand, ISIS has inflicted heavy losses on fighting forces loyal to the NC, but on the other, the NC does not want to be seen as having invited Western forces to enter Syria. In addition, the NC fears that an international campaign targeting only one side – the terrorist groups – and ignoring the NC's chief enemy – namely the Syrian regime, which claims to combat those groups – could renew international legitimacy for Assad. Thus, the NC only showed reserved support for the international coalition. Al-Bahra himself expressed gratitude for the decision, calling it "a major opportunity to replace the Syrian regime," and even called to "carry out immediate airstrikes in Syria" in order to save thousands of Syrian civilians besieged by ISIS. However, he also said: "We are not asking any foreign force to come and remove our thorn. We will remove it ourselves and achieve all that we desire." According to him, "the main danger is the regime, [while] the danger of ISIS is secondary, and is one of the results of the main danger."
NC chair Hadi Al-Bahra (Image: All4syria.info, September 22, 2014)
On a different occasion, Al-Bahra said that the Syrian people "is dealing with crimes by regime forces supported by sectarian [i.e. Shi'ite] militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, while simultaneously fighting ISIS terrorism... Our campaign against tyranny is our campaign against terrorism. It [terrorism] cannot be eliminated without eliminating its root causes." Similar statements were made by Al-Bahra's political and media advisor, Faiz Sara, in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "ISIS... is connected to foreign goals that are in line with the goals of the regime. In fact, it is similar to the Lebanese Hizbullah and the [Shi'ite] Iraqi militias in terms of its role and presence in Syria... This means that the war on ISIS is tied to the war on the Assad regime and its allies... This is one war that cannot be separated – against both terrorism and extremism."
Even after the first coalition airstrikes in Syria against terrorist strongholds belonging to ISIS , Jabhat Al-Nusra (JN) and Ahrar Al-Sham, the NC continued its policy of reserved support. A statement released by the NC read: "The move undertaken by the international coalition is partial and comes too late. It should have been conducted earlier in the Syrian revolution, so as to hurt the source of the crisis [i.e. the Assad regime] and prevent the situation from deteriorating to the point it is at today... The international coalition should carry out strikes against regime and ISIS positions equally." The statement stressed that support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was the key for the success of the international campaign and warned that the Assad regime could use the strikes against the terrorist groups to escalate its own military action against civilians. Hadi Al-Bahra criticized the U.S.'s conduct and claimed that it had no clear grasp on dealing with the Syrian crisis. He said that "eliminating terrorism and extremism must be done with a comprehensive program as opposed to a limited military operation [against the terrorist organizations only and unaccompanied by a political program]. We must deal with the cause [of the terrorism, i.e. the regime]." Al-Bahra's advisor Faiz Sara called for a fundamental change in the international community's attitude towards the Syrian opposition and crisis, and warned that without such a change, " limited and partial steps taken in the war against ISIS, and a lack of attacks against the Assad regime, will only lead to ongoing terrorism and extremism in Syria and the region, and prolong the suffering of the Syrians and the world, as has been the case during the last three and a half years."
MB And Syrian Islamic Council: Muslim Countries Should Oppose Western Coalition
Conversely, Islamic groups led by the MB and the Syrian Islamic Council firmly opposed a Western military campaign against ISIS, while joining the calls to first target the Assad regime, "which has deviated more widely from the path of Islam and is more fanatical than the Islamic State." Syrian MB spokesman Omar Mushawah said that his organization "will not support any international coalition for intervention in Syria unless the first bullet is fired at Assad's head." The Syrian Islamic Council even called on Muslim countries "to stand against the Western coalition and support the Syrian people."
The opposition of the Islamic elements stems from their fear that the anti- campaign is a cover for a much larger move against Sunni Islam. As proof, they mention that the U.S. did not act against the armed Shi'ite organizations from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran that fight alongside the Syrian regime. An MB statement read: "The U.S. and West's focus on extremist Sunni groups, and their disregard for the crimes of Assad's gang and the sectarian Iranian militia movements... cause us to be doubtful... We oppose the extremism of groups that deviate from the wassati [middle] path of Islam... but we refuse to participate in a war that is explicitly against terrorism, fearing that it is implicitly against Islam."
Generally speaking, the Syrian MB opposes the conduct of ISIS, and there have even been claims that ISIS was founded by the Syrian regime or by Iran to discredit the Syrian revolution. However, the statements by the organization's spokesman reveal that it believes military action against this organization is not necessarily the right solution. Mushawah called on ISIS to cease its crimes, which have diverted the rebels away from their main struggle against Assad, and stressed that his organization would not sit idly by if it was attacked by ISIS. However, he also said that the MB does not see ISIS as a monolithic body, but believes that some elements within it have been brainwashed and may be persuaded to repent: "We distinguish between a group within ISIS whose [members] were misled and brainwashed who can return to the right path, and a group with foreign agendas and a takfiri ideology, which works to disrupt the path of the revolution." Mushawah stressed that the struggle against the latter group must be more than an ideological struggle.
Following the initial coalition airstrikes, the MB ratcheted up their criticism of the campaign, especially due to civilians deaths resulting from the attacks. MB official Zuhair Salem wrote: "A new murderer joins the Assad regime, the Russians, and the Iranians... This is an international plot against the Syrian revolution..." He condemned the "America crime in the war on Syrian land and at the expense of [the Syrian] people" and declared that the MB renounces any opposition group that legitimizes the action.
Syrian MB logo (Image: Ikhwansyria.com, October 6, 2014)
Criticism Of U.S. Administration, West In Addressing Syria Crisis
Opposition elements, mainly from the MB, elements also harshly criticized the conduct of the West, led by the U.S., during the four years of the Syria war. A statement by the MB said that the world stood by in the face of horrid acts of massacre carried out by the regime using all manner of weapons, including the chemical weapons that President Obama had called a red line. However, "it was [apparently] a green line so long as this criminal against humanity was not killing any American or British or Western journalist." MB columnist Al-Taher Ibrahim wrote: "The UN documented the killing of 190,000 Syrians, including Christians and Americans killed by Bashar Al-Assad, yet this did not move a hair on Obama's head." NC Secretary-General Nasser Al-Hariri was milder in an interview with Al-Quds Al-Arabi, but his message was similar: "We expected this coalition to be formed to topple the Assad regime in 2012-2013. Furthermore, we hoped it would be established to eliminate Hizbullah and other sectarian militias that entered Syria to fight alongside the regime forces... This is undoubtedly an important move, but, considering the nature of the Syrian problem, partial resolutions or solutions are insufficient."
Doubts Regarding The Declared Goals Of The International Coalition – It Is A Step Towards Exonerating Assad
The Syrian opposition also questions the motives behind the international anti-terrorism coalition, and some discern a deliberately "vague strategy" on the part of the U.S. administration, while pointing to the poor results of American military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. One main fear is that the Assad regime will be given a role in the struggle against terrorism, thus paving its road back into the lap of the international community. The fact that many opposition speakers repeatedly stress that Assad is the root cause of the terrorism and that ousting him is the only guarantee for eliminating it reflects their fear that the U.S. will ask the regime to aid in the campaign against ISIS in Syria, thus restoring the legitimacy it was denied following its actions in the war.
Various opposition elements expressed fear of the consequences of international military action against ISIS, including the possibility of massive civilian casualties. Former Syrian National Council head Burhan Ghalioun warned on his Facebook page that "the war against terrorism could be more painful than terrorism itself and [could be] a chance to expand it and widen schism and strife within the Syrian people. [That is], if the purpose is to turn the fighting Syrian brigades into Sahwat and detonate more bombs in the heart of Syrian society, instead of acting to remove the state [of Syria] from the fires of war that has been raging for years." MB columnist Al-Taher Ibrahim warned that "Washington will bomb ISIS positions in Iraq and kill more Sunni civilians than ISIS does, which will be a chance to increase the number of Sunni casualties."
Armed Opposition Divided On International Coalition
The disagreements regarding the international move also typified the armed opposition fighting in Syria. While some armed elements supported the coalition, others expressed reservations or even explicit objections to it, occasionally to the point of issuing threats. Omar Abu Laila, spokesman for the FSA eastern front headquarters, said that the FSA is willing to join the international coalition against ISIS, and that "ISIS is more dangerous than the regime." He added that, if airstrikes target ISIS's Syrian strongholds, opposition forces on the ground will move to restore control over areas they withdrew from in the past.
On the other hand, some elements within the FSA stressed that airstrikes were not enough and that FSA fighters should be equipped with quality weapons. FSA official Omar Al-Wawi criticized the American plan, saying: "We do not need further training and we have enough soldiers. We require quality weapons... without which we cannot win, no matter what the U.S. does..." Al-Wawi, who was trained by the Americans in Qatar, also criticized the effectiveness of the training: "They taught us to use Russian weapons such as AK-47s. This is not very helpful."
Senior FSA official Omar Al-Wawi (Image: Aljazeera.net, March 25, 2012)
Tawfiq Shihab Al-Din, commander of the Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki Islamic Brigades, which he says are part of the FSA, claimed that the brigades would oppose the international coalition unless its chief goal was to topple the Assad regime. However, he added that his forces would not act against the coalition but rather take "a neutral position" in a way that serves "the national interest."
The Hazzm Movement, one of the biggest opposition groups, which is seen as moderate in the West, announced its objection to the international move and declared that it sees it as "an act of aggression towards national sovereignty and an attack on the Syrian revolution."
The former FSA chief of staff, Riad Al-Asaad, also opposed the military attack on IS's positions and argued that its true objective was to destroy the state and stamp out the revolution, as it would leave Bashar Al-Assad in power thanks to the Americans' pact with their Iranian strategic ally. Following the first attack, Al-Asaad wrote on his Twitter account "The coalition is completing [the regime's] mission and is killing the few children that the regime did not manage to kill, and is reinforcing the regime in order to restore the territory it had lost to its possession.
Even harsher objections were voiced by Dr. Abu 'Abdallah Al-Shami, leader of the Fajr Al-Sham Al-Islamiyya movement, which operates in the Aleppo region and was a member of the Syrian Islamic Front. He said that "any Western ground intervention constitutes occupation that the movement will fight against," and mentioned that, in his movement's opinion, the purpose of the move was not to eliminate a certain group, but rather all Sunni jihad.
* N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI.
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