A reader writes:
I’m no fan of John McCain, and am not in favor of arming the Syrian rebels, but I just got back from two months of volunteering in Amman to aid Syrian refugees. I worked as a physician in Za’atari refugee camp, worked with an NGO treating refugees outside the camps, and volunteered in various injury centers, seeing patients with various battle injuries.
When people talk about the rebels, it’s not just one group. Jabhat al Nusra is one that is mostly active in certain pockets in the north. All of the rebel held areas that Elizabeth O’Bagly visited are likely in the North. Currently the North is the only place foreigners are going because it’s the only place in Syria that is relatively safe. So the slice of fighters they’re seeing and talking to is geographically biased.
This vastly exaggerates the Islamist influence and reach. More of the fighters fall in the “Free Syrian Army” (which doesn’t really exist) category. These ragtag bunches are not well organized and fly under the radar of many international groups, especially those Free Syrian Army battalions that are in areas still under control of the government.
I met a few hundred injured soldiers. All of them were fighting in the south before they were hurt, in regions American officials and NGOs aren’t getting to because it’s too dangerous. While there were some Jabhat al Nusra sympathizers, none had had any contact with JN, and they were a clear minority. Based on my experience on the Southern side the idea that those that want an Islamic state are a majority strikes me as farcical. Granted, the only soldiers I met were those who had gotten injured, which may be a biased slice. Maybe the Islamists are such great fighters they aren’t getting injured.
There are many reasons not to want to arm the rebels, but mischaracterizing their composition only fuels irrational anti-Islamist fears in the West.