31/07/2012 08:41 BST | Updated 30/09/2012 06:12 BST

The West Should Support Syrian Rebels


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 morethan one occasion, the BBC (andotheroutlets) 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