Should The West Back Syria's Rebels?

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As Syria descends into a brutal civil war, with the civilian death toll on the rise and President Bashar al-Assad's security forces and militias accused of war crimes and torture, how much support should the West give to the Syrian rebels?

The members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), for example, have also been accused of human-rights abuses by both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty. Is there an alternative? Or do Western governments have no choice but to back groups such as the FSA if they want to see the back of Assad?

Below Charles Shoebridge and Shashank Joshi, two of Britain's leading security experts, debate whether or not we should back the rebels.


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The West Should Not Back Syria's Rebels

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Who makes the better argument?

Charles Shoebridge Security analyst and former counter terrorism intelligence officer

Follow most mainstream media, and you'll know even from its terminology the situation in Syria is pretty straightforward - on one side a brutal dictatorship killing its own people, on the other a popular rebel army fighting for justice and freedom.

Given this portrayal, and that Bashar al-Assad actually is a dictator, and that the armed insurrection grew from the violent suppression of initially peaceful protest, it's unsurprising that well-meaning, intelligent people have sympathy for the rebels. But in doing so, many have assumed that those who oppose a dictator also therefore support democracy.

Evidence to justify this presumptive mainstream narrative is hard to find. Whilst the opposition includes democrats, many of the West's preferred leaders are of limited relevance inside Syria, having for years lived comfortably abroad. Syria's regional importance and sectarian complexity also render unreliable superficially attractive comparisons to potential democratic outcomes elsewhere.

To some extent, we can use our own senses to assess who those with power on the ground in Syria are. Watch rebel videos, broadcast daily by our media, and consider how often you've heard 'Allahu Akbar' shouting Sunni protesters or fighters make any mention of democracy, tolerance, human or women's rights - or indeed women playing any role at all. The rebels' agenda is to overthrow Assad.

Objective observations on the ground corroborate this assessment. Repeatedly, the UN and others have documented rebel abductions, torture and sectarian murder. Unreported in the UK for example, AFP recently reported how Iraqi soldiers witnessed FSA rebels dismember and murder disarmed Syrian border guards.

Instead of classic guerrilla hit and run, rebel tactics have brought killing and chaos to previously peaceful cities where there haven't been anti Assad uprisings, such as Aleppo. Rebels know that fighting from such densely populated areas inevitably results in heavy weapon use and civilian casualties - just as with any urban combat, such as the US at Fallujah.

Persistent concerns as to rebel activities and affiliations have recently begun to attract mainstream media coverage, including the influence of Islamist militants and al Qaeda, and the widespread persecution of Shia and Christian minorities.

Crucially, we should consider why the most enthusiastic backing for armed rebels on the ground comes from Saudi Arabia and Qatar - dictatorships with no interest whatsoever in promoting human rights and inclusive secular democracy. They do so to promote their own extreme brand of Sunni Islam, and because a crippled, possibly partitioned Syria would isolate and weaken Shia Iran. It is for this cause that the West, in supporting the rebels, has willingly been co-opted.

Democracy and human rights should be encouraged, but if rebels with little care for such concepts succeed in toppling Assad there is substantial risk of Syria collapsing into chaos and sectarian carnage very much worse than now. Whilst this may benefit Saudi Arabia and Israel, it will bring nothing but harm to long term Western interests, and to the Syrian people.

Syria's rebels must be assessed as they are, not as they once were, or as we'd romantically like them to be. And on that basis, we should not be backing them.

Charles Shoebridge is a security analyst and former army and intelligence officer.

Shashank Joshi Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a doctoral candidate at Harvard University's Department of Government

Last week, the security analyst Charles Shoebridge claimed that a BBC report "shows Syria rebel fighters bringing chaos, terror, death, and [the] fear of Islamist extremism to Aleppo".

Do the rebels have non-violent alternatives to guerrilla war? No.

Anyone who persists in thinking that peaceful protest is a viable means of change should try holding up an anti-Assad poster around central Damascus (and, let us be clear: regime violence pre-dates the arming of the opposition, it is not a response to it).

Have outsiders hijacked Aleppo? No. Although the majority of fighters are from rural areas around the city, students from Aleppo University have also joined the Free Syrian Army.

Should the rebels have fought on different terrain, to insulate civilians? Yes. But they did exactly that: "We attacked them in rural areas. We tried to avoid fighting close to civilian populations". When rebels were attacked in the suburbs of Damascus, they engaged in tactical withdrawals. Unfortunately, neither peaceful protesters nor armed rebels get to choose the way the regime responds to their tactics.

Is it true that, as Shoebridge writes, despite "crimes on both sides, [the] western media [is] interested only in one side"? Not really. On more than one occasion, the BBC (and other outlets) have prominently covered rebel abuses.

All of us who support Syrian rebels have a particular obligation to highlight and condemn such abuses, rather that pretend that they don't exist, but these are simply not on the scale of regime actions. Rather than write off an entire national movement, we should develop ways to blacklist and punish abusive rebel individuals and units.

Finally, the greatest fallacy is that we face a choice between secular authoritarianism from the Assad regime, and sectarian theocracy from the rebels. It's an interesting sort of secularism that draws on explicitly anti-Sunni sectarian militias to enforce its rule. And, if the cost of preserving this sham secularism is mass violence, then count me out.

As for the rebels, yes, I have consistently noted that we should be concerned about both illiberal Islamist influences and more extreme jihadist ones. But, as counterterrorism expert Brian Fishman observes, "the prevalence of jihadists within the Libyan uprising has often been exaggerated in American commentary". Jihadists cannot benefit from a foreign occupation, as in Iraq.

Moreover, their counterparts in Libya - where the sceptics also issued these dark warnings - were trounced in largely free and fair elections. So was Qatar-backed Islamist commander Abdul Hakim Belhaj, whose party failed to win a single parliamentary seat - so much for the idea that shadowy Arab powers can simply hijack a revolution.

If the presence of abusive rebels and dubious foreign backers was enough to annul the right to rebellion, then virtually every revolution in history would be deemed illegitimate. Large swathes of Syria's opposition are fighting for a state that is more democratic and humane than that which stands today, and - even if they face steep odds - they deserve, at the very least, our qualified support.

Shashank Joshi is Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a doctoral candidate at Harvard University's Department of Government



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