As the invaluable David Pryce-Jones notes, Syria’s second-most important city, Aleppo, is the locus of heavy combat, pitting Russia and Iran, the forces propping up the Bashar Assad, against anti-regime fighters, also known as the “rebels.” David refers to reports that, as he summarizes them, “secular rebels appear to have liberated most of [Aleppo], maybe all of it.” Meanwhile, the estimable Charles Krauthammer observes that Russia is operating out of an air base in Iran (probably yet another violation of Obama’s disastrous nuclear deal with the mullahs). And who does Charles say Vladimir Putin’s air force is targeting? “It’s hitting a lot of the moderate rebels . . . in Aleppo.”
I have been arguing for years (and as recently as last weekend) that there are simply not enough moderate, secular rebels in Syria to overthrow the regime, much less to defeat both Assad and ISIS simultaneously. Suggestions to the contrary are wishful thinking. More important, such suggestions are counterproductive: The illusion of a vibrant secular, pro-Western opposition in Syria is the basis for urging that America throw its weight behind the “rebels,” on the theory that we would be undermining radical Islam.
In truth, we’d simply be empowering one set of anti-American Islamists against another.
At The Long War Journal, Tom Joscelyn, who for my money does the best job in America of analyzing the factions involved in the global jihad, takes a careful look at who is fighting against Assad in Syria. To what should be no one’s surprise – but will apparently be very surprising to many – the bulk of the opposition consists of Islamists.
As Tom explains, two coalitions are spearheading the campaign that has enjoyed recent success against the regime in Aleppo. The first is headed up by al-Qaeda and goes by the name Jaysh al-Fath (Army of Conquest). The al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, until recently known as al-Nusrah, has rebranded itself as Jabhat Fath al-Sham (JFS). It has a close alliance with a group called Ahrar al-Sham (Ahrar), which includes many al-Qaeda veterans and (as Tom notes) models itself after the Taliban (al-Qaeda’s close ally in Afghanistan). JFS and Ahrar run the Jaysh al-Fath coalition, which includes sundry other jihadist militias long affiliated with the al-Qaeda terror network.
Al-Qaeda is well aware of the West’s myopic focus on ISIS (the Islamic State – the al-Qaeda splinter group that began as al-Qaeda in Iraq). This myopia has the U.S. government and much of the commentariat turning a blind eye to other anti-American Islamists, even absurdly labeling them “moderates,” as long as they are not part of ISIS. The leaders of al-Qaeda realize that a great deal of financial and materiel support is to be had in the “moderate rebel” business but that the al-Qaeda brand could be problematic in maintaining the façade. So they have encouraged their franchises to obscure and soft-peddle their al-Qaeda connections – particularly by not brandishing “al-Qaeda” in their names.
To their credit, the Wall Street Journal‘s editors concede that “the Army of Conquest coalition . . . includes al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.” Yet this is still an understatement, just as theJournal‘s follow-up observation – that this al-Qaeda affiliate “fights alongside more moderate and secular forces” – overstates the case. In reality, al-Qaeda is the Army of Conquest; and the forces they are fighting alongside are a different coalition – and one whose moderation and secularity are exaggerated.
As Tom Joscelyn elaborates, the other coalition in Aleppo is known as Fatah Halab (“Aleppo Conquest”). To be sure, it has some secular, moderate elements; but it also features deep Islamist ties.
The “secular, moderate” veneer is built on the fiction, heavily promoted in the U.S. from the first stages of the uprising, that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a gaggle of secular factions seeking to replace Assad with a Western-style democracy. In reality, the FSA has long been coopted by the Muslim Brotherhood – as has the Syrian National Council, which was set up early on to pose as the overarching framework of the opposition.
As I have pointed out any number of times over the past several years, enthusiasts for American intervention in the civil wars of Muslim-majority countries bend over backward to avoid mentioning the Muslim Brotherhood. They say “moderate” and “rebel,” hoping no one will try to pin them down about who these “moderate rebels” are. But way too many of them are members of the international sharia-supremacist organization whose motto remains: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Koran is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope. Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!”
The Brotherhood has been designated a terrorist organization in recent years by Egypt (which ousted a government led by the Brotherhood), and by its former allies, the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (See Daniel Pipes‘s 2014 piece in National Review on how perceptions of the Brotherhood have changed.) In the U.S., legislation to designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization has been proposed by Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and was approved by the House Judiciary Committee earlier this year. Nevertheless, it remains progressive Beltway wisdom that the Brotherhood is better thought of as a moderate Islamist organization – even a “firewall against violent extremism,” as Marc Lynch of George Washington University put it in a Washington Post opinion piece in March.
But the Brotherhood, which has a history of violence and boasts as its Palestinian branch the Hamas terrorist organization, is hardly opposed to “violent extremism” (the Washington euphemism for “jihadist terror”). It is true that its methods differ from those of al-Qaeda and ISIS. For the Brothers, jihad has its place but is just one form of aggression in a broad arsenal that includes political activism, vexatious lawsuits, media propaganda, etc. Nevertheless, the Brothers’ objective is exactly the same as that of the more brutal jihadist networks: the imposition of the totalitarian sharia system of governance. And given the geography of the conflict in Syria, it is worth emphasizing that the Brothers have no more coveted short-term objective than the destruction of Israel.
Just as the al-Qaeda affiliates pretend to be “moderates” by stressing their opposition to ISIS, the Brotherhood affiliates pose as “secularists” – with no small amount of help from the Obama administration – by stressing their differentiation from al-Qaeda. This pose is also helped along by the fact that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has taken to mocking the Brotherhood as overly cozy with secular regimes and insufficiently zealous for transition to sharia. (See Tom Joscelyn’s report, here.) Consistent with this strategy, the Fatah Halab coalition in Aleppo made a point of claiming that al-Qaeda groups would be excluded. But this, again, is mainly a feint to project the illusion of secular moderation, which triggers Western and other support. In reality, as Tom documents, key Fatah Halab constituents have been working with al-Qaeda affiliates all along.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not to belittle the magnitude of the Russia-Iran alliance. Not only is Putin leveraging his increasingly close relations with the mullahs to project power; Tehran reportedly has dispatched hundreds (perhaps thousands) more fighters to bolster Assad’s forces in Aleppo (to say nothing of the 80,000 to 100,000 militia fighters whom Iran controls in Iraq). My point is that we need a strategy that recognizes all of our enemies for what they are, not one that imagines enemies into potential allies for no better reason than that other enemies seem worse.
I am far from an isolationist, but I strenuously opposed foolish interventions. I am not unsympathetic to the cause of supporting secularists and moderate Muslims – meaning non-Islamists. But that means figuring out which ones are the real deal. We should be analyzing “rebels” in the exacting way Tom Joscelyn does, so that we can grasp what realistically can be accomplished. In Syria, that may be no more than creating safe space for refugees, promoting pro-Western groups, attacking jihadist hubs, and awaiting an American president who understands that both Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood are our enemies, not our prospective “regional partners.”
Until then, the lesson of Libya ought to teach us that it is no advancement of American interests if al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood win in Aleppo, even if that means that Assad, Iran, and Russia lose.
A version of this piece also appeared on National Review Online.