Funding the Unified Front: The Syrian Rebels

An old story — a vicious local conflict, fought within by those who are systematically unravelling a state; and the external backers who feel they have a stake in the outcome. The greatest pretense of civil wars and conflicts is that they are not “civil” in any sense of the term. They are particularly vicious, for one, marked by the familiarity that breeds contempt; in another sense, supporters can be also found from without. They are the pretenders who aspire to the role of puppeteers. The misplaced wisdom here is this: Manipulate the marionettes in revolt, and they will do your bidding.

In the case of the Syrian conflict, the main ersatz puppeteers are Qatar and Saudi Arabia. These governments have made little secret of their objective: the overthrow of the Assad regime. More perplexing is the chaotic force they are backing. To wit, a directive has been issued by both regimes to the rebel forces to conduct operations under one unified command. The sweetener here is a greater and improved supply of weapons. Unite, goes the message, and we will give you more. The big question being asked by everybody is whether such a front will hold.

The French have seemingly stolen the lead amongst their colleagues on the Western side of the fence, and increased the supply of cash for various Islamist groups who have been short of ammunition (Here in the City, December 8). The incentive being dangled here is to buy weapons with French support rather than seek the weapons from other undesirable sources, such as al-Qaeda. This is a naïve assumption, given that any astute rebel commander will simply buy weapons from anyone willing to offer them.

This new arrangement will be difficult to implement. The rebel commanders have been in disagreement on how to conduct operations against the Assad regime since the peace effort became a war effort. Some brigades are touted as being more extreme than others — their modus operandi is execution and revenge. Many kill under the banner of Allah; others prefer a more moderate stance, at least for Western consumption.

It might be said that the exclusion of two groups from the negotiation table in Turkey over this new “streamlining” process might be in part to court Western support. Those on the outer are Jabhat al-Nusra, with supposed links to al-Qaeda, and Anhar al-Sham. But who is to choose? The groups provide a fruit salad of fundamentalists — the Falcons of Damascus, and the Tawheed Brigade.

Certain countries such as the United States have been trying to push for a weeding out of the less desirable elements in the motley assembly, though their efforts have not been successful. Tokenistic gestures are being offered – gradually. Among them is the possibility of designating certain rebel brigades as “terrorist organisations”. The signature on that directive is unlikely to be coming too soon. This is a fight to the finish, and every able bodied being in Syria is being encouraged by the western-Qatar-Saudi nexus to dispose themselves to the anti-Assad cause.

Some don’t need any encouragement. Ahmed Eissa al-Sheik, leader of the Falcons of Damascus, has had a good number of his family killed, including three brothers and his 16-year old son. The dead on his side have stirred him to exact a bloody toll on his opponents. Prisoners have been released in bomb-laden vehicles and in turn detonated at checkpoints. This is the sort of model of compromise that has troubled the rebels’ external backers.

500 delegates were involved in the election of a 30-person Supreme Military Council with a Chief of Staff on Friday. This grouping will, in turn, meet with the political contingent of the rebels that was reorganised last month into a National Alliance. Again, it remains to be seen whether that particular feat, urged on by the U.S., France and other backers, is actually clumsy window dressing without more.

The bloody Gotterdammerung, whether it involves chemical weapons or more conventional means of slaughter, is not something that seems avoidable. What is almost definite in this calculation is that the marionettes will cease to do the bidding of their puppet masters in due course. They will have other things on their minds.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.