The Syrian Opposition: Can We Back Them?

Diplomatic talks intended to quell the protracted conflict in Syria are under way in Switzerland, and much has been made of the strength of feeling and intransigence on both sides (the negotiations are founded on the presumption that a power transfer should take place from the Assad regime to one composed of members of the opposition – something to which the president has not agreed.) Syrian state media denounced statements made by Saudi Arabian foreign minister Saud al-Faisal and labelled the Saudi establishment in general as “terrorist”. Indeed, various (if not all) opposition groups militating against the Assad government have been described as terrorists. The term is elastic and promiscuously deployed; and the motivations behind its use are as interesting as whether or not its use is actually appropriate.

The attacks of September 11th 2001 remain the most striking example of terrorism in modern history, informing and animating a whole generation. Too often though the word “terrorism” is used to denounce and delegitimise rather than to describe. Peaceful protesters in the Middle East and elsewhere have been smeared as terrorists by supporters of the status quo. My view is that we ought to use the term carefully; it is robbed of force and meaning if it is applied to any violent act which we might deplore.

Now, since 9/11 and the War on Terror, a number of despotic governments have used the terms “terrorism” or “terrorist” to justify the suppression of popular uprisings. This has clearly been the case in Syria: the Assad regime hoped and probably still hopes that if it can persuade the world that it is engaged in a battle against the same forces that reduced the World Trade Centre to rubble, slaughtered commuters on the London Underground and targeted nightclub revellers in Bali, that it is on the side of humanity and decency. But this is a callow and binary view of the conflict. It is obviously possible that both the Assad regime and some (though certainly not all) of its opponents are engaged in desecration, torture and murder.

A similar tactic was employed by Middle Eastern and North-African regimes during the so-called Arab Spring in order to dispel international attention and dissuade foreign intervention. Clearly, allegations of terrorism are sometimes, even often, disingenuous. And many of us find it hard to reconcile that designation with images of more or less peaceful demonstrations being frustrated or crushed by vastly superior state power. But it appears that the character of the opposition in Syria has undergone a dramatic change.

There are now terrorist elements among the ‘opposition’ in Syria and we do not need to take Assad’s word for it. Al-Nusrah, an off-shoot of al-Qaeda, is very much active in the region and has recently claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings in Beirut; a group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has carried out similar attacks. The former organisation was formed in 2012, some time after the inception of the Syrian conflict. Indeed, by some estimations Syria has become something of a hub for al-Qaeda operators, hosting as many as ten thousand fighters with ties to the group. Indeed, there is evidence that around four hundred Britons have sought to join various strands of the Syrian opposition.

The grisly footage of a rebel commander apparently tearing out and eating the heart of an enemy soldier was also a warning against Manichean views of the Syrian crisis. We should be wary of the convenient semantic trick of labelling any opponents ‘terrorists’. But we should not be blind to the fact that the Syrian war is no longer a conflict between indigenous Syrians simply fighting for freedom and brutal, despotic state power: as well as the influence and involvement of Saudi Arabia and Iran, paramilitary groups like Hezbollah and al-Qaeda derivatives are clashing in what threatens to become a microcosmic arena for the battle between militant Sunni and Shia Islam.

To notice these things is not to excuse Assad’s brutality. But it seems to me that the situation is becoming increasingly combustible and we must put our faith in the current peace talks, however ineffectual they seem at the moment. We must hope that Assad can be persuaded that he cannot retain his position but we must also be vigilant against the emergence of any consolidated, violent groups in the region; if they manage to establish any measure of control in a post-Assad Syria (as seems the case in Halabja in Iraq recently), the departure of this homicidal despot will not herald the peace that is so desperately sought.