The moderate Syrian opposition only comes up in discussions when the Syrian crisis does. About a year ago, during a discussion in the US Senate over the anticipated strikes in response to the chemical weapons massacre, the US secretary of state said that 90% of opposition fighters were moderates. Before and after that incident, Western news media were describing those fighters as extremists or terrorists, yet Western officials never hesitated to doubt that any of them were moderates. The real question is: Where have the moderates that Kerry mentioned gone? (Kerry also said that his administration had a detailed list of the extremists’ names.)
The answer to this question is what grants the support of the “moderate opposition” its credibility among Syrians. There is a necessary distinction here between the apparent manufacture of moderation and its encouragement. The former, which is touted by the American strategy against the Islamic State (IS), is comprised of training thousands of new soldiers for the mission. In all honesty, this implies a lack of faith in current fighters and could lead those fighters to be deprived of the support necessary to hold their own against regime forces. Moreover, it could allow the regime to gain control over wide swathes of territory.
Cutting support from groups currently categorized as extremist requires pressure on their regional sponsors. It is well known that those sponsors are participating in the alliance against IS and that they have the ability to influence the ideology of the groups that they support and push them toward the internationally agreed-upon stance. Using the word “encouragement” here understates the actual influence these backers have.
It is not impossible, then, for the groups which are being targeted by the new strategy, groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the rest, to take preventive measures as to the international plan, by taking in the weakest moderate battalions in the region under these groups’ control, if there is no strong or immediate support for moderates. This possibility will be realized when some of the groups clash with IS, lose the battle and lose members to the advantage of IS, which has proved that it is more powerful and capable of exercising control. Though one should not set aside the importance of that organization’s wealth to its fighters.
This means that the demand that fighting groups prove their moderation by confronting extremists could work to the advantage of the latter, not because the moderates lack the intention to do so, but because extremists receive disproportionate support and funding. Moreover, causing or creating moderates on this front will not only cause them moral and military losses, given that the ultimate goal is the encouragement of moderation, and not fostering extremism and thereby crushing moderation.
The information circulating about testing the “moderation” and organizational coherence of these fighting groups before arming them, in line with a slow and tightly-controlled plan, does not suggest that the results will be easy to predict from the previous balance of power. The regime will not restrain itself to fighting particular groups, and the extremists will not sit idly by. Both the regime and the extremists will likely target the moderates more and more in the days to come. These tactics may also include agreements that allow some locations to change hands between the regime and the extremists.
Political pragmatism could justify allowing extremist centers to remain to determine who will become extremist and who will help do away with them. The analyses that suggest that this is necessary distinguish politics from morals and gives precedence to the former. Pragmatism itself is the stronger player on the Syrian field and this has been especially true in the last year.
Given this, extremism and moderation, the ebb and flow between the two cannot be distinguished according to merely ideological standards, since distinguishing them depends on international and regional shifts. Also because comparing them depends first and foremost on the patronage and support for both moderation and extremism by international actors. Favoring morals over politics requires acknowledging that war very strongly contradicts morals. Given this, it is not acceptable to claim that the greater proportion of armed groups represented ideological or moral obstacles, since all groups behave according to military and political exigencies.
Opposition fighters are not moderate. By the same standards, they are not extremists, and it must be noted that the standard used to distinguish between them is Islamic in the first place. These fighters are in very harsh conditions, and their attempt to survive and overthrow the regime that has targeted them is more important than any ideological luxury that the majority of them possess.
In many instances, the members of moderate groups have fled to better-armed groups and more effective groups under the pressure of necessity. Entire groups have also become extremist to ensure their share of foreign funding. But the most important development that has happened is that tens of thousands of officers and soldiers who have defected from the regime’s army have been taken away and they have been placed in conditions resembling house-arrest in neighboring states. They have not been trained to become the kernels of an organized army independent of ideological projects.
In the real meaning of the phrase, there is no moderate armed opposition. It instead corresponds, to a large extent, to extremism, since these groups’ opposition to al-Qaeda does not mitigate the extremeness of their positions, making their moderation difficult to judge. Extremism intensified due to two obvious causes. The first is the so-called Sunni-Shiite conflict in the region. The second is a set of major incentives to the support of extremists.
This is not the first time in which extremism has filled the political void in a country whose political regime has collapsed, and has remained without an obvious alternative. Without taking all of the conditions into account, and especially the vanishing of the horizons of concluding the Syrian conflict, it is difficult to predict the crystallization of a moderate political and military opposition capable (most critically) of extending its control on the ground.
Manufacturing moderation for the sole purpose of waging war against IS and al-Qaeda does not provide a sufficient political or moral incentive for moderation, since it comes at a time when the political and military opposition has lost most of its local support, which will not allow it to reinvigorate itself sufficiently.
Moreover, the financial aid set aside for moderate Syrians is less than the financial resources of IS alone. Finally, the Syrian opposition has remained haunted by the possibility of American airstrikes, since they lack roots of their own in Syrian territory.
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