The Syrian Opposition Against Itself

The backers in the west, who braid their cause with outrage and valor in favor of that mystical notion of the Syrian people, are recoiling.


Syrian National Coalition Official Logo. Credit: Wikipedia

Beware the errors of a muddled mind. But even of greater concern, be wary of the punting mind, one which gambles in misguided, cretin-like fashion.

Think Syria, think about the fractious opposition and, given the latest killing of an opposition leader by jihadists, think of unmitigated chaos. The backers in the west, who braid their cause with outrage and valor in favor of that mystical notion of the Syrian people, are recoiling.

The killing of FSA figure Kamal Hamani took place on Thursday, inflicted by members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. Louay Mekdad, the FSA’s Supreme Command Political Coordinator, was forthcoming about the details, claiming that the Islamic State’s emir of the coastal region, Ayman al-Baghdadi, was responsible.

The incident was perpetrated by a disagreement between Hamami’s forces and the Islamic state over the control of a strategic checkpoint in the province of Latakia, a region sharing a border with Turkey. Hamani, known by his nom de guerre as Abu Bassir al-Ladkani, was one of 30 figures known to form the FSA’s Supreme Military Command. “We will not let them get away with it because they want to target us,” claimed an unnamed senior FSA figure. “We are going to wipe the floor with them.”

On the weekend, fighting broke out in Bustan al-Qasr in Aleppo between the Syrian opposition and jihadists, suggesting that such floor wiping has commenced in earnest. The east of the city has been held for much of the past year by units connected with the FSA, much to the disdain of the jihadists. While the FSA maintains a tense accord with the main jihadist group, Jabhat al-Nusra, the bloody fringes of the conflict are having an effect.

From making gains last year, the inability of the opposition to build upon them has frustrated efforts. Notably, the Islamic elements of the rebellion have been quick to establish some form of governance, creating religious courts and creating a nominal institutional structure.

The killing of Hamani reminds one of previous cases where the rebellion (the opposition, for want of a better term) was waged by those who were themselves chronically divided, providing the subtext for broader, seemingly irreconcilable agendas. The Yugoslav Partisans under Josip Broz Tito had little time for the nationalist Chetniks, whom they proceeded to butcher at the end of the Second World War. The latter themselves were also happy to slaughter and collaborate with their opponents in the name of more distant goals, keeping their eyes on the ethnically cleansed prize of a Greater Serbia.

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Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek likewise considered the communists of Mao Zedong to be cankerous, a racking disease of the Chinese social body. (The Japanese, he noted even as their armies were plundering Chinese territories, were merely an affliction).

This is the historical formula facing those who are funding the anti-Assad forces: backing the unspeakable against the unmentionable

The woolly headed planners in Washington, Paris and London will be wondering whether arms should be provided to FSA units not merely to confront Assad but to hold up the front against Islamist groups. In turn, the latter will be further buttressed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Arab Mashriq, the region comprising Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, with the potential to include Israel and Palestine, has been transformed by a conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam.

Bashar al-Assad remains the best of a vicious bet, the leader who has made his state a pool of blood to wade in. The region’s ethnic and religious fault lines are the subject, not of reconciliation sessions marked by beer and sandwiches, but manic butchering. They involve massacres, torture and crushing battles. They involve the beheading, as happened last Friday, of an FSA rebel in Idlib province by his Islamic State counterpart. Terms such as responsibility to protect are merely rarefied musings of the untested in such a case. And at the end of the day, they are merely excuses for hypocrisy.

The one boasting a huge grin is bound to be Assad. As the opposition goes into free fall immolation, his forces, aided by Shia units from Iraq and Hezbollah forces from Lebanon, continues to advance on Homs. Despite recent successes, there is little reason for him to celebrate on the casualty front. According to the Syrian Human Rights Observatory, 42,000 have died on Assad’s side, as opposed to 18,000 dead rebels, and 36,000 civilians.

His one retort to those against him, for all the vicious bloodshed, is bound to be: I told you so.

Binoy Kampmark was as Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.