Syria’s Most Important Rebels Are Islamists, and We Have to Work With Them Anyway

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The announcement of a new Islamist “alliance” in Syria—bringing together the largest and most influential rebel factions—is only the latest sign of a failed Western strategy. Several of these groups, including Liwa al-Islam and Liwa al-Tawhid, were previously linked to the Western-backed “moderate” Supreme Military Council (SMC). The implications are significant not just for Syria’s fractious opposition but for American strategy more broadly. As Charles Lister writes, this “effectively depletes…the SMC,” which, at least until recently, embodied Western hopes for a more palatable, more unified rebel force.

For more than two years, the U.S. and its allies have embarked on a quixotic effort to mold the political and military opposition, an effort that has only grown less effective over time. Repeatedly, the rebels were promised greater support and more arms, but it was usually a case of too little too late, if at all. After the U.S.-Russia deal on chemical weapons, Syria’s rebels had even less reason to count on Western support. They were demoralized after military strikes seemed imminent only to be scrapped at the last minute. As one rebel commander put it, “we should have known better than to believe them.” Sheikh Omar Othman, a leader in Liwa al-Tawhid, one of the constituent groups of the new “Islamic alliance,” said, “we were depending on this.”

But “this” never came and the sense of betrayal that was always there took further hold. With his seemingly eager compliance on chemical weapons, Syrian President Basharal-Assad was looking more like a partner than an enemy, prompting John Kerry, in yet another classic Kinsley gaffe, to give “credit” to the dictator. Perhaps Assad didn’t “need to go” after all.

For some time, members of both the military and political opposition had wondered whether the United States was really on their side. It was Foreign Policy’Daniel Drezner who, in June, put the pieces together and popularized the idea that a bloody stalemate in Syria wasn’t evidence of the administration’s failure but its success. It sounded awfully cynical at the time, but the Obama administration did, in fact, fear an outright rebel victory. And, more recently, American officials have made the unstated rather explicit, telling the Washington Post that the CIA’s efforts to train Syrian rebels were meant to be limited and ineffectual. The goal, the Post reported, was “to provide enough support to help ensure that politically moderate, U.S.-supported militias don’t lose but not enough for them to win.”

From the very beginning, U.S. officials worried about the unintended consequences of arming the rebels. Even after President Obama authorized the provision of arms to “vetted” groups, it was on such a minimal scale as to be meaningless. And, in any case, the U.S. still refused to provide the heavy weapons the rebels said they needed to counter the Assad regime’s artillery and aircraft. Part of the problem was that too many of the rebels seemed to be Islamists and some of these Islamists were part of the very umbrella command that the U.S. was supposed to be supporting. But the unwillingness to support the SMC in a serious, sustained fashion backfired, pushing “swing Islamists” to go their own way and form a separate, though still loose alliance. Moreover, it has made the Syrian National Coalition, effectively the political opposition-in-exile, even more irrelevant than before. As Lister notes, “the scope for Western influence over the Syrian opposition has now been diminished considerably.”

In what could be the epitaph for America’s Syria policy, “do no harm” did harm: not doing more to support the rebels helped shift the balance toward Islamists, which, in turn, made the U.S. less willing to support the rebels. Of course, it’s not all bad news for the United States—assuming, of course, we’re willing to draw distinctions between different kinds of Islamists. Most groups in the Islamic alliance would be considered “extreme” by U.S. standards insofar as their commitment to applying sharia law and anti-minority rhetoric are concerned. But judging them in the context of Syria rebel politics, “extremist” makes less sense, since there’s a real qualitative difference between, say, Liwa al-Tawhid and the al-Qaeda-linked Jabha al-Nusra. It is not fashionable to make these distinctions in Washington, but that doesn’t make them any less real. (“Moderates” versus “extremists” was always the wrong way to look at it).

There is a potential opening for the Obama administration here, although it is a difficult one to exploit due to understandable sensitivities over backing the “bad guys.” Notably, there was one Islamist rebel group that was not part of the new alliance, the al-Qaeda affiliate ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham). This is particularly important in light of efforts by mainline Islamist rebels to contain and even counter ISIS’s influence, which has been growing of late. Others, such as Hassan Hassan, have written on the potential for a counter-extremist, though still Salafi, alliance against al-Qaeda in Syria. This is not to say we need to go around arming these groups simply because they’re not al-Qaeda—a Republican-led Congress is unlikely to be supportive of such a thing—but, if this Islamic alliance holds and becomes the preeminent rebel grouping, it makes little sense to block our allies from supporting them or to try to play off remnants of the “moderate,” and increasingly irrelevant, SMC against them. No matter what we do or don’t do at this point, most of the relevant rebel groups are and will continue to be Islamist in orientation. If the Syrian rebels are ever going to gain a decisive military edge over the Assad regime, Islamist factions are going to be leading the charge. We don’t have to like it, but we probably have to accept it.