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The West Should Not Support Syrian Rebels

Aug 15, 2012

This article was originally published by Charles Shoebridge on

Follow most mainstream media, and you’ll know even from its terminology the situation in Syria is pretty straightforward – on one side a brutal dictatorship killing its own people, on the other a popular rebel army fighting for justice and freedom.

Given this portrayal, and that Bashar al-Assad actually is a dictator, and that the armed insurrection grew from the violent suppression of initially peaceful protest, it’s unsurprising that well-meaning, intelligent people have sympathy for the rebels. But in doing so, many have assumed that those who oppose a dictator also therefore support democracy.

Evidence to justify this presumptive mainstream narrative is hard to find. Whilst the opposition includes democrats, many of the West’s preferred leaders are of limited relevance inside Syria, having for years lived comfortably abroad. Syria’s regional importance and sectarian complexity also render unreliable superficially attractive comparisons to potential democratic outcomes elsewhere.

To some extent, we can use our own senses to assess who those with power on the ground in Syria are. Watch rebel videos, broadcast daily by our media, and consider how often you’ve heard ‘Allahu Akbar’ shouting Sunni protesters or fighters make any mention of democracy, tolerance, human or women’s rights – or indeed women playing any role at all. The rebels’ agenda is to overthrow Assad.

Objective observations on the ground corroborate this assessment. Repeatedly, the UN and others have documented rebel abductions, torture and sectarian murder. Unreported in the UK for example, AFP recently reported how Iraqi soldiers witnessed FSA rebels dismember and murder disarmedSyrian border guards.

Instead of classic guerrilla hit and run, rebel tactics have brought killing and chaos to previously peaceful cities where there haven’t been anti Assad uprisings, such as Aleppo. Rebels know that fighting from such densely populated areas inevitably results in heavy weapon use and civilian casualties – just as with any urban combat, such as the US at Fallujah.

Persistent concerns as to rebel activities and affiliations have recently begun to attract mainstream media coverage, including the influence of Islamist militants and al Qaeda, and the widespread persecution of Shia and Christian minorities.

Crucially, we should consider why the most enthusiastic backing for armed rebels on the ground comes from Saudi Arabia and Qatar – dictatorships with no interest whatsoever in promoting human rights and inclusive secular democracy. They do so to promote their own extreme brand of Sunni Islam, and because a crippled, possibly partitioned Syria would isolate and weaken Shia Iran. It is for this cause that the West, in supporting the rebels, has willingly been co-opted.

Democracy and human rights should be encouraged, but if rebels with little care for such concepts succeed in toppling Assad there is substantial risk of Syria collapsing into chaos and sectarian carnage very much worse than now. Whilst this may benefit Saudi Arabia and Israel, it will bring nothing but harm to long term Western interests, and to the Syrian people.

Syria’s rebels must be assessed as they are, not as they once were, or as we’d romantically like them to be. And on that basis, we should not be backing them.