Waiting for the Tomahawks
How do Syria’s rebels feel about a U.S. bombing campaign against Assad?
BEIRUT, Lebanon — When President Barack Obama first dangled the possibility of launching a punitive military strike against the Syrian regime, he may have been caught off balance by the reaction of some of Bashar al-Assad’s staunchest opponents. Rather than gleefully welcoming support from the world’s biggest superpower, some Islamist rebels worry that the United States isn’t really coming for Assad — it’s coming for them.
"America is going to strike empty bases that are useless to the regime and this cosmetic strike will then be used as a front to go after us," said Suhaib, a 30-year-old fighter with the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, in a Skype interview. "The Americans decided to destroy airports, arms and munitions factories, and scientific research centers when they realized that the honorable revolutionaries of the Free Syrian Army and the jihadists of the Islamist factions are on the verge of seizing them."
If there is one thing that Syria’s diverse armed factions converge around, it’s the nagging feeling that the United States wants to pull a fast one on them.
In extensive interviews, several rank-and-file fighters and high-ranking commanders expressed the fear that U.S. forces will sweep in at the very last moment, "stealing" the hard-fought Syrian revolution from them after all sides are sufficiently weakened and installing a pliable, hand-picked leadership in Damascus.
"There was never a single day in my entire life where I ever felt like I could trust the Americans or the West in general," said Abu Obaida, who leads a small battalion within the Ahrar al-Sham movement, a countrywide jihadist group that nevertheless maintains close ties to mainstream rebel groups. "This complete lack of trust comes from the strike on Iraq … American forces seized the oil, brainwashed people’s minds, took over state institutions, and they went in based on a pretext."
He scoffs at Obama’s humanitarian arguments for embroiling the United States in the Syria conflict. With hundreds of people dying every day, he finds it odd that America would be moved to act by a single chemical weapons attack. It is merely an affectation, he believes, to dampen Americans’ outrage about embroiling them in yet another military campaign in the Middle East.
"They left us to die for two years," he says. "So can I ask: What difference is there if there’s blood or not? It is not a moral imperative for them. We all know that."
The reaction of Abu Obaida and like-minded fighters, however, is just one aspect of the diverse rebel response to the prospect of U.S. military intervention in Syria. While it is difficult to find a single rebel fighter who is not skeptical of American overtures, most moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders welcome a U.S. military strike as the only potential salvation from the horrors of the Syrian regime’s crackdown.
These divergent opinions have become a microcosm of the larger challenges facing the sprawling armed opposition. While a U.S. strike may present the rebels with an unprecedented military opportunity, the fractured movement has seemingly failed to organize a coordinated response.
Even some of the rebel groups who were on the front lines of the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, which the United States says killed over 1,400 people, are ambivalent about U.S. military intervention. Liwa al-Islam, a Salafist group that operates in the eastern Damascus suburbs, released a statement that warned darkly of the true American intentions behind intervening in Syria.
"What matters to us is the question of: Who will America target its strike against? And why choose this particular time?" the statement asked. "The Assad regime has used chemical weapons dozens of times and the U.S. did not move a finger. Have they experienced a sudden awakening of conscience or do they feel that the jihadists are on the cusp of achieving a final victory, which will allow them to seize control over the country? This has driven the U.S. to act in the last 15 minutes to deliver the final blow to this tottering regime so it can present itself as a key player and impose its crew which it has been preparing for months to govern Syria."
Commanders of more moderate rebel factions will admit, after much prodding, that they feel invigorated by the prospect of a U.S. strike. But that doesn’t mean they trust in the benevolence of Washington’s intentions for one second.
Jamal Maarouf, the leader of the Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade, is considered one of the most prominent strongmen in the northern Idlib province. Maarouf’s brigade includes more than 30,000 fighters, he says, which are now spread across most of Syria’s provinces. In describing the U.S. motivation for intervention, he explains that the United States can invade a country in two ways — by deploying its ground troops, or building up a local autocrat who it can control. In Syria, Maarouf says, Washington has opted for the latter option.
"The U.S. wants a pliant leadership that it can control remotely," he explains. "But who is capable of ruling this mess of a country when there are more than 200 armed factions currently fighting on the ground? That’s why the U.S. did everything it could to prolong the conflict."
Maarouf believes the Americans are more than content to see droves of Islamists from Afghanistan, Somalia, Tunisia, Pakistan, and Iraq flock to Syria, where they can all be conveniently eradicated at once.
"Here’s what I think will happen: The U.S. strike will target the military airports, where the regime keeps its anti-aircraft missiles," he says. "Once that’s taken care of, the Americans can send their drones, at will, to collect intelligence on the Islamist factions they want to get rid of. No one will notice as the war continues to rage on and the humanitarian crisis escalates. They think they are fooling us. No one has ever fooled us. But, unfortunately, what can we do about it?"
Such huge distrust of the United States, one might suspect, would make Maarouf hostile to the prospect of American "help" in his struggle against Assad. After all, he notes, none of the weapons promised to them months ago have arrived yet. But when asked if he supports the U.S. strike, Maarouf answers quickly.
"Definitely," he says. "I don’t trust their intentions but, against my better instincts, I welcome this strike because they might at least damage the regime’s military airports and, let’s face it, the enemy of your enemy is your friend."
Rebel commanders have been further disconcerted by Obama’s delay in launching a strike. "His decision to get Congress’s permission gave Bashar plenty of time to change his strategic [military] positions," said Qassem, a commander who heads an independent battalion in Idlib. "In fact, he has transferred hostages to the locations that U.S. forces could strike so, if anything, there will be a huge loss in terms of civilian lives."
But despite the many potential downsides of American military action, many commanders see no other way to break the bloody military stalemate that currently grips the country. Col. Qassim Saad al-Din, a spokesperson for the FSA’s military command who heads military operations in Homs province, doesn’t share Maarouf’s suspicions that Islamists are the real target of any upcoming U.S. strike.
"I am a 100 percent with the strike," he says. "We instructed all our commanders to be alert and ready to attack regime positions, security forces, and checkpoints. The strike is going to be limited but we will try to take advantage of it anyway."
Al-Din contends that all FSA battalions are coordinating with each other on how to exploit the aftermath of the strike, but they are not necessarily coordinating with Islamist factions. However, he is quick to add, "there is no tension between the FSA and Islamists either."
The Homs commander’s comments are just one indication of a broader attempt by Islamists and FSA units to present a united front, at precisely a moment when foreign military intervention could tear them apart. In several interviews with members of Islamist factions, fighters downplayed recent signs of fractures, emphasizing that FSA and Islamist fighters were united in their struggle against the Assad regime.
"The relationship is excellent and the proof is that all our military operations are carried out conjointly with the FSA," said Abu Abd al-Rahman, the spokesperson of the Syrian Islamist Front. He cited the recent capture of the Mannagh Airbase near Aleppo as an example, explaining how both Islamist and moderate brigades took part in the offensive.
"There is no fear of betrayal" between the units, he added pointedly.
But the jihadists’ belief that increased American involvement may isolate them from more moderate rebel factions no doubt weighs heavily on their minds — and may inform their opposition to a U.S. strike. Abu Obaida, as a member of the Ahrar al-Sham movement, is aware that the Americans would likely never consider him a respectable interlocutor.
"We are tired of being referred to by terms pinned down by the West such as ‘radicals, militants, extremists and fanatics,’" he complains. "We have given our organizations clear names. Why can’t they at least use them?"
Apart from the fighters, Syria’s civil society activists — by far the most battered section of the uprising — are less cautious about their support for a strike. Many of them are extremely hostile to the radical Islamist factions which they blame for the Syrian revolution veering off course. They have been savoring a rumor that al Qaeda’s branch in Syria has fled the northern province of Raqqa and hidden in the desert prior to the U.S. strike. With more than 110,000 people killed during the conflict and countless more arrested, many of these activists are clinging to any hope for an end to the conflict.
Abu Qatada, a 24-year-old activist in the Damascus suburbs, has fought the desire to commit suicide for a year now. When the Syrian uprising erupted, he was one year away from obtaining a degree in psychology from the University of Damascus, but immediately put his studies on hold to join an FSA battalion as a media activist. He soon went into hiding and started moving from location to location with the armed group, which became his adoptive family. As the war ground on, he watched these men drop in battle day after day.
"I have nothing to live for anymore," he used to say. "Life now is like death. It all feels the same".
Now, however, he is entertaining the possibility of having some kind of future again should the U.S. strike unravel the stalemate. After having come to terms with his dashed dreams, he is now timidly talking about studying international law in the United States next year. But most of all, he is simply waiting to see what the next weeks bring.
"I don’t know what the Americans have in mind but we’re eager for this strike to happen," he said. "I will decide how I feel about the U.S. after they strike, depending on how they strike, who they strike, and when they strike."