The United States and Turkey have agreed to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels, but is there such thing as moderate rebels in Syria? The US has had doubts about working with any rebel groups, but Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar insist that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a moderate force that represents the ambitions of the Syrian people.
This is an illusion. The FSA is not moderate and it does not claim to be. Most of its leaders and commanders have a strong jihadist tendency and they call their war against Damascus a holy war. FSA units and brigades carry Islamic names. Their black headbands are adorned with Koranic verses. They also launch their attacks and fire rockets to the cry of Allahu Akbar.
Did the world forget that before ISIS came to the scene FSA was the one that committed many horrific crimes? One of their commanders ripped out the heart of a Syrian soldier and ate it in front of a camera. He later told the BBC, “I didn't bite into it. I just held it for show.”
In 2013 Carla Del Ponte, a UN human rights investigator, said that the FSA and other rebels had used sarin nerve agent against soldiers and civilians. According to Human Rights Watch, in one attack in 2013 Syrian rebels killed 190 unarmed civilians from an Alawite tribe in Latakia.
The FSA shares the same region with many unknown radical groups. They hang out together and regularly switch sides. In December Rudaw interviewed Rami Al-Dalati, the highest FSA military commander, who said: “The al-Nusrah Front has a different story. All members of this front are Syrians. They are to some extent popular. They have an impact and we have some coordination. We see the al-Nusrah as a Syrian front against the regime. We do not see it as a radical group.”
Two years ago, the Ahrar al-Shimal, an entire FSA brigade and 65 members of another brigade joined the Nusrah Front. Reports speak of deep infiltration of Nusrah, al-Qaeda and ISIS in FSA. They manage to get some of the funding, arms and information that FSA receives from abroad.
Apart from their war crimes, many people fallen into ISIS hands were in fact abducted in FSA-controlled areas. Kayla Mueller, the American aid worker who was killed in Raqqa earlier this month, was abducted in Aleppo and some reports say that the FSA sold her to ISIS. Theo Padnos, an American journalist who was abducted in Syria in 2012 and held for almost two years managed to escape twice, but both times the FSA caught him and handed him back to his Nusrah captors.
I believe the only difference between FSA, ISIS and the Nusrah Front is their focus. ISIS wants an Islamic caliphate. The Nusrah Front wants an Islamic state in Syria only and the FSA wants an Islamic regime in Damascus.
The FSA and other rebel groups are not fighting Bashar al-Assad because he is a dictator. They fight him because he is an Alawite Shiite. I have watched hundreds of FSA and rebel videos, and I have never heard them say they fight for democracy, human rights and freedom. They only speak of revenge against the “Alawite dogs.”
The FSA is moderate only in its influence inside Syria, the size of its territory and the number of people it has killed. ISIS beheads its victims; FSA executes them by firing squad.
Countries that want to train and arm Syrian rebels should also keep in mind the fate of Syria’s more than four million Alawites. They are Syrians too and they have as much claim to the land as anyone else. You can’t arm a rebel group that is seething with hate and revenge against them.
I do not mention the Kurds, who are the most modern and secular group in Syria -- and have protected Arabs, Christians, Shiites and Sunnis alike -- because the focus here is rebels who want to topple Assad. But I think that if Europe and the US are looking for a moderate force in Syria, they should work with Assad himself. He is more moderate and secular than any rebel group. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are wrong: Removing Assad is not the solution but the beginning of more war and atrocities.
It is more hopeful to bring democracy to Syria through Assad than through the rebels.
* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.