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The World at Home

Last update - Tuesday, October 15, 2013, 14:49 By Charles Laffiteau

Charles Laffiteau's Bigger Picture

Last time I explained why I believe President Obama would have no choice but to launch retaliatory missile strikes against Syria should the country fail to follow through on its pledge to place all of its chemical weapons under international control. Furthermore, I firmly believe that the only reason the Assad regime agreed to give up its chemical weapons is because it feared the damage that would be inflicted by those missiles. But back in May I also wrote of my belief that America would soon have to consider giving more sophisticated weapons to the Syrian rebels in order to counter the influence of Islamic jihadists.

For the most part, I don’t believe ratcheting up the level of violence in an armed conflict is a recipe for ending such clashes. Over the course of the last two years, while Syrian rebels were gradually gaining control of less populated areas of northern and eastern Syria, rebel demands for Assad’s ouster impeded peace negotiations. Make no mistake: regardless of what they may have done, demanding the ouster or abdication of the leader of your opponents’ forces as a condition to begin peace talks is just another way of saying you don’t really want to negotiate.

However, on the heels of a series of successful offensives by Syria’s military and their Hezbollah allies, in June an increasingly confident Assad regime announced it was willing to participate in a Geneva peace conference, sponsored by Russia and the United States, without preconditions. Yet while no longer demanding Assad’s ouster before approaching the table, the Syrian rebel opposition announced it would only participate if its forces received new supplies of weapons and ammunition from its western allies. In other words, whichever side appears to be winning on the battlefield loudly claims it wants peace, but in reality loses interest in actually negotiating towards a peaceful resolution of this war. So long as one side or the other believes it has the upper hand on the battlefield, they will make demands instead of negotiating. So to facilitate peace talks, I think America should provide moderate and secular rebels with more advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.

But western countries have to walk a fine line here, because some of these advanced weapons could end up in the hands of al-Qaeda terrorists. America and its allies must also be careful not to give Syria’s rebels enough weapons to tilt the balance of power completely in their favour – just enough to put them on a more even footing with the Syrian government’s army and Hezbollah fighters.

Unfortunately, the recent decision by the Syrian rebels’ main fighting forces to join an Islamist alliance with al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, is a move away from negotiations. Some of the rebel factions that joined the Islamist alliance claim they did so due to their frustration with the west, rather than their support for Islamism. But the Middle East’s Islamists are just like America’s Tea Party activists: they do not believe in compromise and will not agree to anything other than their opponents’ capitulation.

While it is not the largest rebel group operating in Syria, the best equipped and organised faction in Syria is al-Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate, which recently renamed itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In 2011, while US troops were being withdrawn from Iraq, US military commanders erroneously claimed to have subdued al-Qaeda in Iraq when in fact the group was just biding its time, waiting for the US to leave. Less than two years later, al-Qaeda in Iraq has not only renamed itself with a regional moniker, but has also staged a huge jailbreak of hundreds of its militant members and killed more Iraqi civilians than in any year since 2008.

The ISIL is a very extreme terrorist group that uses assassinations, kidnappings and beheadings to terrorise the communities it controls. It has thousands of foreign fighters from within and without the region that it has used to expand from Iraq and overrun moderate Free Syrian Army positions in northern and eastern Syria. Once this group takes control of an area, such as it did in Syria’s eastern provincial capital of Raqqah, it becomes a no-go zone for foreigners and aid workers as well as more moderate Syrian rebels.

Maybe if the US and its western allies had stepped up to the plate earlier in the civil war to support moderate and secular Syrian rebels, they may not have exposed an opening for Islamic extremists to exploit. But it’s pointless to argue about what might have been. Alas, the political and military disarray of Syria’s opposition rebels only serves to strengthen Assad’s hand in any upcoming peace negotiations. And a refusal to participate in the international peace conference, coupled with an Islamist rebel military alliance that aims to impose Sharia law on Syria’s citizens, virtually guarantees that America will not provide more sophisticated weapons or become more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war.

So if Syria’s moderate and secular rebels want American weapons or help in negotiating an end to the current stalemate, they will have to put more distance between their forces and the rebels aligned with al-Qaeda and their ilk.


Charles Laffiteau is a US Republican from Dallas, Texas who is pursuing a PhD in Public Policy and Political Economy. He previously lectured on Contemporary US Business & Society at DCU from 2009-2011.


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