AMUDA, Syria — As the horizon is still cloudy concerning the date and details of the announced Western strike on Syria — officially intended to punish the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons on Aug. 21 in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta — the rebels on the ground are divided on whether the intervention will benefit their cause.
Those who support foreign action are actually placing their hopes on a wider involvement than the limited punitive strike mentioned by US officials and aimed at deterring further use of chemical weapons.
“We support a strike targeting the regime’s stocks of chemical weapons, as this is what has been announced by US officials,” Maj. Mohammad Yahyya Ali, commander of the northern and western fronts of the Free Syrian Army's (FSA) Ihfad al-Rasul Brigades, one of the largest militias, told Al-Monitor over Skype, “but they also need to hit the vital military articulations and establish a no-fly zone.”
Most interventionists agree upon rejecting a full-scale deployment by land, whereas they complain like everyone else about the lack of arms. “We don’t need men, but supplies of weapons,” confirmed Ali.
On the contrary, the armed groups opposed to intervention are wary of Western interests, regardless of whether troops will be deployed on Syrian soil or not. “On principle, we are against foreign intervention because the locals should decide how to get rid of this criminal (President Bashar al-Assad),” the political wing of the Ahrar al-Sham Islamist movement told Al-Monitor in a written interview. “In case of a strike, it will be launched to achieve the interests of their countries, aloof from the interest of the Syrian people. If they were concerned about the situation of Syrians due to the crimes of the regime, they wouldn’t have delayed a response until now.” Ahrar al-Sham's political wing announced, "All foreign troops entering Syria by land, whether Iranian or American, will be treated as occupying forces."
Even some interventionist factions show concern about the interests served by the military operation, emphasizing the risk of seeing Israel strengthened by the consequences. “Foreign intervention is welcome as long as it targets those forces who are keeping under siege our cities and villages: the Republican Guards, the 4th Division (an elite brigade led by Bashar’s brother Maher al-Assad) and the security branches,” Lt. Col. Abu ‘Othman, commander of the Al-Fajr Brigade (FSA) in Eastern Ghouta, affirmed in a Skype interview with Al-Monitor. “The West should not strike the modern National Air Force Defense, as this is needed to defend our country from Israel.”
Others argue that the priority should be rescuing Syrian civilians, rather than believing in the defensive nature of a military apparatus which has been rarely used against the Jewish state. “The Air Force has never been used against Israel, but only on the Syrian people, therefore it needs to be targeted,” Ihfad al-Rasul’s Ali objected, adding, “The priority is to stop spilling Syrian blood.” As a matter of fact, on May 7, the regime showed no reaction to the Israeli strikes on Damascus which reportedly resulted in the deaths of at least 100 Syrian soldiers.
In addition, there is much room for speculation on targets because Western forces are not coordinating their plans with the rebels. “Until now there has been no form of cooperation; we haven’t been contacted by anyone, although I believe the West is already informed about the fundamental targets,” Ali said.
Others are more pessimistic about the likelihood of the strike to achieve crucial results, as the warning gave the regime enough time to take precautions. “The problem is that the regime has already evacuated the international airport of Damascus, the headquarters of the 4th Division and the artillery stationed on the Qassiun mountain,” Abu Yasser Usayd, the commander of the Ihfad al-Ghouta phalange, comprised within the Al-Habib al-Mustafa brigades in Ghouta Sharqiya, told Al-Monitor in a Skype written interview. “Rather than informing the regime of the strike, the West should have launched a limited attack through a tacit agreement with the forces on the ground, but so far there has been no coordination at all,” he said.
Both the interventionists and those against the strike are concerned about the aftermath of this lack of coordination, which could result in targeting rebel groups.
“The regime won’t fall by striking its evacuated military and security sites. We will need to break into [its headquarters], and that’s when the West is going to shell both us and the regime,” Ihfad al-Ghouta’s Usayd foresees. In Libya, for example, the NATO coalition repeatedly targeted, more or less intentionally, the rebels it was supposed to help.
“We don’t agree on any strike on any component of the Syrian revolution, whether it is the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra or others,” the political wing of the Ahrar al-Sham Islamist movement stated. Even though no Western official has included a war on al-Qaeda among the goals of military action, warnings against possible US raids have been widely circulating on jihadist forums in recent days.
However, when it comes to radical entities like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, several FSA officials cautiously voiced their readiness to collaborate with the West in countering their influence.
“We are aware of the existence of a large component of fighters belonging to certain groups and cooperating with the regime,” Al-Fajr Brigade’s commander, Lt. Col. ‘Othman said, adding “We reject extremism and we are ready to cooperate against these groups, even though now the focus needs to remain on the regime’s elite forces.”
“For the moment, we are not here to fight against other factions,” Ihfad al-Rasul Brigades’ commander, Maj. Mohammad Yahyya Ali, stressed. “What I can say is that we’re absolutely against radicalism and terror, and in the future we will fight against any faction opposed to the will of the Syrian people.”
Andrea Glioti is a freelance journalist who covered the first five months of the Syrian uprising from inside the country. His work has been published by the Associated Press, IRIN News, openDemocracy, The Daily Star (Lebanon), New Internationalist and numerous Italian and German newspapers.