Syria: The Missing Piece


Last week was a long, Syria-focused one in the Capitol, and it seems that just about everyone feels that they have come out victorious. Everyone, that is, excepting for a senior delegation of the Syrian opposition. They left frustrated that, amid all the hype about Syria, hardly anyone in Washington would make the time to meet with them.

George Sabra, the visiting President of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the umbrella group of the Syrian opposition, warned that the international community is at risk of falling into another Syrian-Russian trap. Sabra protested that the Syrian people were again being left behind. He’s right, of course, but why let that spoil the party? Sabra seems to be alone in his worries.

President Obama, who long advocated for non-intervention, appeared relieved to table his “limited action” plan for Syria and avoid a fight in Congress. He can now claim that diplomacy prevailed and that solution can bring an end to arms standoffs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is even happier. Through a diplomatic maneuver and an op-ed piece in the New York Times – in which he successfully painted himself as an advocate of peace and international law – he thwarted what many thought was an inevitable American military strike.

While Putin came off perhaps as the “savior” in this situation, it is worth noting that his agreement says nothing about Russia’s continued supply of arms to the depleted Syrian military. Not only is the feasibility of the agreement questionable at best, but also it gives a carte blanche for Putin to continue arming Assad’s army while at the same time criticizing the U.S. for its supply of “arms to terrorists.”

Assad must be smiling in his bunker. True, the deal requires the disclosure of his chemical arsenal and the implementation of one of the most ambitious arms-control efforts in history, but Assad understands full well that the process will be long and complicated. Assad was also quick to underline that the agreement is conditioned upon the U.S. ceasing all support to “terrorist” rebels. He announced this potential deal-breaker just as the State Department leaked that they are sending arms to the opposition. But not to worry: the agreement calls for UN arbitration. Certainly the Russians, Americans, and the Chinese will solve any pending disputes, as they have successfully done thus far.

And then are the American people. Very few Americans supported a strike to begin with, and for good reason. They were told, time and again, that a strike would do no good in Syria. The public discourse surrounding the vote presented a choice of two evils:  Assad and Iran on the one hand and Al Qaeda and the Salafists on the other. Indeed, if – in the language of Rep Michael McCaul – the opposition is a group of “radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world,” then it is not surprising that no one found time to meet with its leaders.

While it is true that recent months have seen more Islamist gains in fighting, most reports estimate that the Islamists number no more than 20,000 fighters, including many “imports”, i.e. non-Syrians. While these numbers are not insignificant, do they really teach us much about a population of 22 million that, until recently, prided itself on being a bastion of socialism and nationalism, a country where Christians, Druze, and Kurds all play important roles? Are they Islamists too?

A Pechter public opinion poll conducted among Syrian Sunnis just six months ago found that there is overwhelming support for the mainstream Syrian National Council. More recent data shows some minor adjustments to this trend, with evidence of greater sectarian support and of growing Islamist influence, but this is to be expected. While the Islamist groups continue to receive support from Gulf States, Turkey and Al Qaeda affiliated sources, the non-Islamist opposition received mostly lip service and a few computers.  In that sense, what’s notable is that even with all the support they have received, the Islamists remain a much smaller presence than is commonly supposed.

A friend from Syria long involved with the opposition bemoans the sad trajectory of recent events. In the beginning, he said, were the white flowers and dancing protests that gradually turned into violent shoot-outs. “And then came the radicals, with good financing and weapons, to gain a foothold in Syria, while the world stood by watching the moderates retreat.” “The moderates are still there and are the overwhelming majority,” he says. “But with no-one willing to help them fight, they just had to grow beards.”

Complicated? For sure. Welcome to the Middle East. The opposition will remain fractured but that does not make it an Islamist faction.  It also does not mean, as recent Egyptian events seem to indicate, that Syrians will defer to a Sharia state once the fighting abates. The choices are not simple and not necessarily polar opposites. But if we only talk about the Islamists, we may never hear of any other options.


*Dr. Nir Boms is a co-founder and board member of


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