Juan Cole complicates the administration’s plans to fight ISIS in Syria by partnering with “moderate” rebel factions:
Obama’s desire to support a “moderate” opposition will lead him to back to the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria. But Saudi Arabia, one of Obama’s major partners, has declared the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, and they have the money to make that stick. With Egypt and Saudi Arabia against the National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army (because of their Muslim Brotherhood ties), Obama by allying with them is basically allying with the murky Islamic Front, which has some al-Qaeda elements and now has turned openly anti-democracy and anti-rights for minorities.
Saudi Arabia will provide training camps for the rebels of the “moderate” opposition. But it is rumored that the Saudis are behind the splinter group from the Free Syrian army, the “Islamic Front.” It rejects democratic elections. The Islamic Front is full of people who have continued to have rigid religious views but who are trying to find new allies. The Saudis will be training people, in other words, very much like the Islamic State fighters in their fundamentalism, but who are less hostile to Saudi Arabia and perhaps slightly less openly brutal. That’s a “moderate” Sunni opposition?
Who in rebel ranks can be trusted not to turn Western-supplied weapons against the West later, or switch sides as we’ve seen in Mali and other countries racked by Islamist rebellions? Who can receive arms that won’t be shared with ISIS or the official al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra? Who won’t embarrass the West by engaging in some act of egregious cruelty, torturing prisoners or executing foes?
There were not many moderates around two years ago, as I found in Al Bab then, and there are far fewer now. A year ago the town was overrun by ISIS and many of the young rebels joined the group; others who remained loyal to brigades affiliated with the FSA pulled out. The bulk of those, according to locals, hooked up with the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist militias who are the second largest fighting insurgent formation after ISIS. The front has close ties with al-Nusra.
Mark Kukis explains why arming rebel groups is always dangerous, and especially so in a volatile place like Syria:
By definition rebel groups do not answer to authority. They tend to take whatever arms, training and funding they can get from friendly governments and pursue their own agenda. Any rebels backed by Saudi Arabia and America can be expected to do the same. … What goals the rebels might have for themselves will be difficult to know. The fighters who will soon begin arriving at training camps in Saudi Arabia probably will not have a sense themselves of what the future holds beyond the fight against ISIS. But we can all be sure that nothing good will come of the effort apart from any blows these guerrillas manage to land against ISIS. This is because the region as a whole is in such turmoil. Even if the Syrian rebels depart Saudi Arabia as moderates, they will not likely remain so as they wage war in lands where extremism and instability prevail.