Syrian rebels cannot be clumped into one group

They share the same aim - the removal of Assad from power - but they are not the same

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Following the European Union’s decision to remove an embargo on sending arms to the Syrian opposition earlier this week, there has been a great deal written on the dangers of Britain arming “the rebels”.

Whether it is because most people hadn’t thought it a possibility until the embargo was removed, or just that William Hague’s prominent role in the process gave commentators here an opportunity to have their say, doesn’t really matter.

What is a problem, however, is the rather unhelpful habit that has emerged of grouping all those fighting against Bashar al-Assad into one homogeneous block: “the rebels.”

We should not arm “the rebels” because they are extremists, goes the refrain. We cannot supply weapons to “the rebels” because they carry out atrocities, goes another – the infamous cannibal rebel, Abu Sakkar, being the poster boy for this argument. And 'what if those weapons fall into the wrong hands?' they ask.

The trouble with this kind of loose talk is that the Syrian rebels cannot be clumped into one group. In fact, they are hopelessly divided, both on and off the battlefield. There are a large number of different factions, battalions, brigades – many of whom have a vastly different vision of what a post-Assad Syria will look like.

Currently, they both share the same aim: the removal of Assad from power. Beyond that it is extremely difficult to imagine a solution to the war that would reconcile the ambition of Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra with that of the more moderate fighting groups operating under the command of General Salem Idris. One group wants to impose a strict version of Shariah law; the other would like a state that preserves Syria’s secular nature, minus the authoritarianism.

These divisions are important. Perhaps the reason William Hague and his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, do not share the same concerns as those arguing against arming “the rebels” is that they predict that if the war does continue, it is very likely that those who eventually receive weapons from the UK will be fighting against those very same “wrong hands.”

The friction between different rebel groups was evident when I made a brief visit to Syria last year. Our guide, a well-educated man who had left a job working in finance in the Gulf, spoke with unease at the atrocities being carried out under the name of the “Free Syrian Army,” of which he was a non-fighting member.

“Many people call themselves the Free Syrian Army, but we are separate to them,” he said.

People often talk of the “second civil war” on the horizon. In many places, that fighting has already begun. In Raqqa, northeastern Syria, skirmishes have broken out between the Islamist groups that run the city and more moderate rebel fighters.

Then there are the Kurds – the vast majority of whom are secular – who stand very much apart from Jabhat al-Nusra, and just about everyone else if they seek to carve out their own state in Kurdish areas, as they may well do. 

But even if UK weapons only get to the moderate rebels, that does not mean Hague is right in sending them. The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn wrote recently that “[t]he evidence from Syria itself is that more weapons will simply mean more dead and wounded.”

As someone who witnessed the disintegration of Iraq first-hand, he should know. What Hague appears to be betting on, however, is that more weapons will also mean a shift in power from the extremist groups to the moderates – or at least affect the power of balance enough to pressure Assad to take peace negotiations seriously.  Arms are already flowing to Syria’s rebels, after all, from Saudi Arabia and Qatar – the trouble is that they are going almost exclusively to Islamist groups.  The situation in Syria now is that almost everyone is receiving a healthy flow of arms – all those except the moderates in the middle.

The sensible counter-argument made by Cockburn and others is that even if the UK and its EU partners arms the moderate rebels and the balance tips in their favour, they will still not have the strength to topple Assad and tackle the extremists left over.                     

So it is quite possible that those arguing against arming the rebels are right to do so, but for completely the wrong reason.

Is that important? In short, yes.

If we refuse to arm the rebels because we believe that it will ultimately lead to more deaths, then at least we can claim to have done so for the right reasons. But to argue that we should not send arms to anyone opposing Bashar al-Assad because they are all bad, all the same, is not only false, it is an insult to all those who were killed for seeking the democratic rights we enjoy, and to all those who are yet to die.       

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