'Security discourse dominates the international chatter on Syria. Most Syrians see Bashar Al Assad as their chief enemy – he is, after all, responsible for the overwhelming proportion of the dead and displaced. But the Syrian people are not invited to the tables of powerful states, which are in agreement that their most pressing Syrian enemy is “terrorism”.
There is no question that the moderate Syrian opposition exists, in the form of hundreds of civilian councils – sometimes directly elected – and at least 70,000 democratic-nationalist fighters. In a recent blog for The Spectator, Charles Lister, one of the very few Syria commentators to deserve the label “expert”, explains exactly who they are.
Lister’s book-length study The Syrian Jihad: Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency, on the other hand, focuses on those militias, from the Syrian Salafist to the transnational jihadist, which cannot be considered moderate. It clarifies the factors behind the extremists’ rise to such strategic prominence, among them the West’s failure to properly engage with the defectors and armed civilians of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in 2011 and 2012.
Then, on August 21, 2013, a year-and-a-day after United States president Barack Obama declared a supposed chemical weapons “red line”, Assad’s regime killed 1,429 people with sarin gas. The West’s failure to act, even over this atrocity, destroyed any residual rebel faith in western-backed structures. In September, 11 powerful groups renounced the authority of the West-friendly coalition. In the same month the CIA delivered arms to select FSA factions for the first time – a case of too little too late.
Largely as a result of its engagement by foreign states, Ahrar has moderated its discourse. It and Jaysh Al Islam (another IF militia) signed the May 2014 Revolutionary Covenant, calling for a unified and “diverse multi-sectarian” Syria which would respect human rights and reject dictatorship. This commitment, however cosmetic, marks a clear distinction from the monolithic intransigence of the transnational jihadists. So these are not moderates, but Salafist Syrian pragmatists who can and must be involved in a final settlement (as must regime-loyalist Alawi communities), lest they act as spoilers.
Lister warns that Russia’s bombing of moderate opposition forces is inevitably driving them into closer coordination with Nusra. “Rather than fighting jihadist militancy,” he writes, “Russia’s military intervention [is] fuelling it like never before.”
Increased and improved supply has had the effect of amalgamating FSA groups into larger, better coordinated units. If this effect were magnified and spread, the FSA could again dominate the field, an outcome which would produce global benefits – because the only effective long-term strategy against jihadist extremism is consistent support to the democratic nationalist forces whose aims most closely align with the Syrian people’s.
Presently, however, there is little sign of sense prevailing. No powerful state has a serious strategy to stop Assad’s war. So the jihadist threat will grow, despite the bombs thrown at it. Politicians should therefore arm themselves with a copy of The Syrian Jihad – at once the definitive guide to such groups and the most comprehensive blow-by-blow military account of the war thus far.'